Speaking in tongues; or why I have trouble with my own language

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.

For example:

  • ‘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.

Gezornenplatz

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.  

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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8 Responses to Speaking in tongues; or why I have trouble with my own language

  1. Mary says:

    After 9 years here in France and 10 previous ones in Budapest, I’m completely out of touch with American lingo and struggle all the time to find the right words in English. If I experienced something in a French-only setting, I hear myself trying to translate it to English and it sounds terribly affected.

    Since I’m a professor, I expect I’m closer to perishing than publishing if it goes on like this! Then there’s the depressing fact that I don’t feel truly fluent in any language…

    Fortunately, my winespeak is tip-top! lol

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    • nessafrance says:

      It sounds as if you are experiencing exactly what I grapple with every day. I suspect this is not uncommon after a certain time as an ex-pat. You’ve been away from your native land even longer than me.

      Glad the winespeak is okay, though. At least you can drown your sorrows fluently if you perish instead of publishing. lol to you too.

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  2. Deborah says:

    We’re not permanent residents, but even so it only takes a couple of weeks in France before we are using the first words that come to mind, even when we’re supposed to be speaking English. The builders are “masons” and we “do the poubelle” and “close the piscine”. Drives our very literal-minded teenager folle.

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    • nessafrance says:

      It’s not good, is it? We do this all the time, mainly because we’re too lazy to think of the correct word in English. I would be very interested to know if French people who live in England do the same thing in reverse.

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  3. The Statistics Freak says:

    I know my French leaves a lot to be desired and when I talk to my sister in Sweden she smiles and says:” You don’t say it like that in Swedish!” and when I return home Vanessa says: It’s amazing how your English deteriorates when you have been in Sweden for a week!”
    So I have given up. I’ll be happy as a monkey.

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  4. Even after just five years I’m losing my grip slightly on English too. I’ll be talking to guests staying in our gite and suddenly I can’t think of the English version of ‘rentrée’ or ‘jour ferié’ or something, and we’re all looking at each other blankly for a few seconds! Ruadhri, our 10 year old, has the most Frenchified English. He’ll often say ‘I can’t arrive at doing this’ (I can’t manage this) or ‘Is it to me?’ (Is it mine?). He also incorporates a lot of accents in his English writing!

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    • nessafrance says:

      It’s interesting that your Ruadhri puts accents on English when writing. I imagine he will soon start to think of French as his first language. It must be confusing for a 10 year-old, but probably he manages better than the rest of us. I’d forgotten about ‘Je n’arrive pas’, which I also translate directly to English sometimes.

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