For a writer this is a rather serious problem. I realise that my command of English leaves something to be desired these days. Fourteen years in France have eroded my ability to wield the language of Shakespeare in the way I would like. I suppose dwindling brain cells may have contributed too. The fact is that I can’t speak any language properly anymore.
When we first moved here, my ability to string more than a couple of French words together was severely limited, despite six years of French lessons at school. Four years of intensive French lessons combined with reading French newspapers and books, watching French TV and talking with French people have given me a working knowledge of the language. I will never speak it perfectly but I am reasonably fluent, which will have to do.
But what about your native language? I have observed that it deteriorates in three main ways.
1: Speaking Franglais
People have done research about how immigrant populations affect the indigenous language of their adopted country. Unfortunately, I can’t find an easily assimilable reference to them on the Internet. However, Franglais must be a step towards a new language, despite the efforts of the Académie Française to prevent it.
Franglais is an amalgam of French and English. It employs mainly English syntax, peppered with a few French words. Sometimes the French word appears deliberately; at other times it comes to mind more quickly than the English word. Winston Churchill was an accomplished exponent of Franglais, delivered with his trademark Churchillian accent. The SF and I are pretty good at Franglais.
Here is an example perfected by the SF:
‘I’m not m’inquièting du tout.’ (I’m not at all worried). Notice here that the verb cleverly combines both French and English in one word.
2: Losing your Grasp of Current Colloquial English
I used to travel to England much more often than I do now. The result is that my colloquial English is at least 10 years old. I am ignorant of words that have recently gained a place in the Oxford English Dictionary. I don’t understand the meaning of certain phrases that have become common currency in the English language.
- ‘couch-surfing’. What on earth is that? After some effort I found out that it means staying with successive friends (or even strangers) who are prepared to put you up on their couch.
- ‘pants’: this has been around for a while, but I‘ve only recently discovered that it means useless or rubbish.
- ‘LOL’: people kept putting this in emails to me. It means ‘laugh out loud’ and is presumably one of the many abbreviations that have arisen through the increasing use of mobile phone texting.
3: Translating from French into English
I now do this a lot, whereas when we moved here I did the opposite. Then, I took an English sentence and translated it verbatim into French: it was invariably wrong. Now, I take a French sentence and translate it verbatim into English: it is invariably wrong.
For example, I have been heard to say, ‘The weather is arranging itself.’ (le temps s’arrange). You just don’t say that in English.
Words that look broadly similar don’t always mean the same thing in both languages. The other day I found myself talking about someone exposing at a French art exhibition. Of course, I meant exhibiting. But the French verb exposer came to mind more quickly and I simply translated it into English with the French meaning.
All this reminds me of the theory that if you took a large enough number of monkeys and gave each of them a typewriter, they would eventually come up with the works of Shakespeare between them. To test the theory, monkeys and researchers were recruited and typewriters procured. For several months, the monkeys tapped away but produced only gibberish. One day, a researcher tore a sheet of paper from a typewriter, exclaiming, ‘I think we’ve got something here!’ The other researchers crowded round.
On the sheet were the words, ‘To be, or not to be: that is the gezornenplatz.’ Well, it’s a start, even if there’s still a lot of Hamlet to go.
Unfortunately, I appear to be going in the opposite direction from the monkeys.
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