Every nation is afflicted by stereotypes that other nations love to perpetuate. Englishmen wear bowler hats, drink tea all day, eat overdone roast beef and sport a stiff upper lip. Frenchmen wear berets, drink wine all day, eat garlic and carry their hearts on their sleeves. There’s sometimes a grain of truth in these caricatures, but only a grain. Having lived here for 20 years, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these myths about France in an occasional series.
Whose country is it?
Whether individual French people speak English or not, I always argue that those of us who have chosen to live here should speak French to them. It’s only polite. After all, they didn’t ask us to come here. Of course farmers and local people in rural France don’t speak English; why should they? In fact, for some of the older ones down here, French is already a second language to Occitan.
I get exasperated with my compatriots who don’t make an effort or who think that speaking slowly and loudly in English will make them more intelligible. My experience is that if you try to speak French, even if you get it a bit wrong, French people generally appreciate it, especially those in country areas.
Leaving aside the ethical issue, English has been creeping in by the back door for some time. It is increasingly the language of business. I did some freelance work for two French multinationals whose official international language was English. I dealt with employees in a mixture of English and French. Their English ranged from the reasonably competent to the fluent.
In addition, English words have become current in everyday French, for example, le week-end, le planning, le camping, le parking, le marketing. Many of them derive from business use, especially from the IT industry, which tends to be English language-dominated. It does also work the other way. In English, we use many French phrases without even thinking about it. C’est la vie.
Protecting the purity of French
However, moves have taken place to stem the incursion of English words into French on the basis that it has become disproportionate. A law, la loi Toubon (1994), asserted the primacy of the French language in the workplace, advertising and public media.
In addition, the Académie française, the crème de la crème of France’s intellectual élite (see? We do it too) is charged with defending the French language and regulating its usage by publishing a dictionary. It has long fought a rear-guard action against the Anglicisation of French.
Despite all this, increasing numbers of people, especially young people, are learning and speaking English. Younger people in shops or restaurants sometimes switch into English when they realise I am not French. Even after 20 years here, my accent gives me away. I continue resolutely in French, while they persist in English. Generally, my French is better than their English, but then I live here. They don’t live in England.
Be careful what you say
A personal anecdote shows that you should never assume French people don’t understand English. We live at the end of a rural lane. Even so, the Jehovah’s Witnesses manage to find us from time to time. You can spot them immediately: they work in pairs, dress smartly and carry briefcases. On one occasion, I was in the front garden and unable to escape or pretend no one was in. One of them started talking in French, plainly a native speaker. I thought I would cleverly head them off at the pass.
“Je ne parle le français,” I said, adopting an even more appalling accent than usual.
“Oh, that’s okay,” he said. “I speak English.”
I would qualify the myth in various ways. First, the French probably don’t speak English as well as some nations, such the Scandinavians or the Dutch, but the latter are smaller countries whose second language has, of necessity, become English. We have to acknowledge as well that French is a Romance language while English is a Germanic language and that adds to our mutual difficulty in learning our respective tongues.
Second, we have noticed that some French people of our acquaintance can actually speak English reasonably well but are afraid of not speaking it correctly. They are reluctant, rather than unable, to speak English. So, perhaps the French won’t rather than don’t speak English sometimes. This must have its roots in the education system, where the language may have been imposed too strictly and mistakes not tolerated. This is purely supposition on my part, since I have no experience of French schools.
Of course, I can’t do more than generalise in a short post, but I’d be interested to hear your take on the subject.
You might also like:
Copyright © 2017 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved