Sunday, August 06, 2006

"French" Teachers

I’ve heard from others who are learning to speak French that the French often correct their pronunciation and article-gender mistakes (le/la, un/une, ton/ta, etc.). This has happened to me on a few occasions, e.g., when I pronounced a word in such a way that it took on a different meaning (sale = dirty vs. salé = salty); when I told my mother-in-law that a bird had relieved itself on her head - “un oiseau faire caca sur ton tête” and she replied “ta tête, ta tête” – it was a very stressful day for her and I did indiscreetly exclaim it in front of a group of people who subsequently giggled so I don’t blame her; and when I asked the grocer for “une citron” and he handed me a lemon and kindly said “voila, un citron” – not to be rude, but to speak properly and perhaps offer me a delicate hint.

I was not offended in these situations because the corrections were done by those close to me and/or politely. What I can’t stand is when a non-native speaking French person finds it appropriate to mock and/or mimic my French. A pattern has emerged wherein every few weeks an immigrant to France offers some commentary on my French speaking abilities, or lack thereof. Here are a few examples:

New Year’s Day at La Frégate. Fred and I treated ourselves to a nice lunch at a restaurant along the Seine. I kindly asked the waiter for une bouteille de l’eau avec gaz (a bottle of sparkling water). He crouched down a bit, hands on his knees, and with his best Does-Polly-Want-a-Cracker voice repeated my exact question back to me. Fred and I looked at each other perplexed, but I decided to let it go and enjoy my meal. When it came time for dessert I ordered tarte tatin – something I’m quite certain I can say having ordered it at Plouf in abundance. He pretended like he couldn’t understand me. I repeated myself several times, pointing at the menu item. After Fred said it for me, the waiter replied “oh, tarte tatin”. I told him that I could speak in English if he'd prefer. Apparently to dense to read my annoyance, he responded “yes, I’d prefer it if you would.” He was still joking and had no idea I was offended by his sixth grade sense of humor. In the end, I told him I thought he was rude and we cancelled dessert. He offered me a seemingly genuine apology. I know he was just trying to be funny; however, I found his jokes inappropriate and stupid - the equivalent of telling someone they have a booger in their nose just to see their reaction.

Crêpe stand down the street. I ordered a sucre et banane crêpe. And the crêpe man repeated my order back to me in a high-pitched voice as if to imitate me. I gave Fred a this-can’t-be-happening-again look and cancelled my crêpe order, but not until he had started making it - out of spite. (You’d think I’d be losing a lot of weight by all these passed-up desserts. Not the case.)

Thai restaurant by rue Monteguiel. This past weekend Fred, Todd, and I ate dinner at a Thai restaurant. I ordered first:

Me: Est-ce que la soupe est petite comme une entrée?
Waitress: Yes. It’s small.
Me: D’accord. Je prends la soupe poulet pour une entrée. S'il vous plaît.
Waitress: The chicken soup.
Me: Et après, le boeuf et basilic.
Waitress: Beef with basil.
Me: Oh, et riz nature.
Waitress: And rice.

[Here’s the part where I should have said: “Excuse me, can you please just speak to me in French. I can’t understand you when you speak English. Your accent is very thick.” I would have felt better for a brief moment, even though it would have been very small of me (and a lie, her English was very good. And, to my chagrin, Fred confirmed that she spoke French extremely well too).]

Todd, an American who speaks a high-level of French, ordered after me. The waitress exclaimed “Oh, you speak French?” – as if it was the most crazy thing she had ever heard – as if I had just not ordered in French (which she understood every word I said, evidenced from her English translation) – as if based on his association with me he would not be able to speak French either - as if she were the only person in the word capable of speaking more than one language. Todd said that he would speak in English if she’d prefer – but she preferred to speak in French to him. Todd patiently explained in response to her stupid expression that he and I were Americans and I interrupted with an annoyed (and I’m sure overly defensive) “Et mon mari est français. Ca va?!?” (And my husband is French. Is that okay?!?). After she was done with her census poll, she skipped off to place our order. We all agreed that she was bizarre – and I observed her do dumb things to other patrons throughout the meal that confirmed it. Todd and Fred thought she was odd but didn’t give it a second thought. Me? I was outraged! I wanted to stab her eyes out with my fork. She ruined my meal (between courses at least, I didn’t have any problem eating) and I’m fairly positive I ruined Fred and Todd’s meals with all my complaining.

On the way to the metro, we theorized as to why immigrants act this way towards other immigrants who are in the infancy of learning French. Perhaps they feel superior because their ship docked at the Ile-de-France before mine so they’re more French than me. Perhaps they’re trying to be helpful – although I don’t see how any of these “lessons” were helpful – except for my Chinese teacher, she was helpful because I actually was using the wrong word (blanche vs. nature) and article (une vs. un); but I don’t think she was trying to be nice. Or perhaps they feel that it’s a rite of passage like a hazing ritual: Because they suffered through it, I must suffer through it. They might as well force me to drink pitchers of water through a funnel or sleep naked in the woods. Both sound more fun.

P.S. I start my bona fide French classes the second week in September. I'm really looking forward to it : )


Andrew said...

Bon chance with the French lessons. As a Canuck je parle Francais un peu but not enough to be considered anywhere near bilingual. (I probably just told you that I speak to statues or something :o)

To Love, Honor and Dismay

Cooks on the ROK said...

Something similar happens here in Korea. My husband spent an intensive year and a half learning Korean before coming here only to have Koreans ask him to speak in English. One theory is that they want to practice their English. But it still comes off as rude and patronizing. Hang in there!

Cynthia Rae said...

I am not sure if this is a French/Italian thing OR a big city/little town thing, but I found everyone here very pleased at my efforts to speak Italian. If I get it in the ballpark, they can understand and are always happy with my efforts.

I always look forward to being corrected when I am speaking wrong, but find it eaiser to take when speaking with friends or family and NOT total strangers.

I did have a shop owner in Rome pretend not to understand when I asked for two metro tickets in plain Italian. Perhasp he couldn't understand me with my Emila Romgana accent! hehehehehe!

(ps. Hope this doesn't mean that the sterotype of "the rude french" is true!

Anonymous said...

Oh boy now I am afraid, I don't think I should even attempt any French at Christmas time., Mom

Anonymous said...

Hi Amy!

I'm so sorry about your bad experiences. I think you may be on to something when you mentionned "hazing." I went through similar experiences the first few times I went to England or the States and I was a beginner English-speaker. I still get comments (which "they" probably think are hi-larious) when I accidentally pronounce "hair" "air." So I'm "happy" to say it's not only a "French thing" it's just a "rude people" thing. ;) Anyway, I think for one that you're French is pretty good for someone who has only be speaking it for a little while. Differences between "le" and "la" are difficult to remember even for people who have been speaking French for years. Just don't let these idiots ruin your experience or intimidate you. Speaking the language is the only way to improve, mistakes and all. And you're one brave woman to jump right into it like you do. Believe me, you'll laugh about this in a few years, when you're French is so good that they mistake you for a native! ... although a hint of American accent can be quite cute so don't lose all of it!!

Bises to you and Fred,

phil said...

You could just mumble like I do.

I wonder if she understood the universal waitress language, "You're talking away your tip, biotch..."

Expat Traveler said...

I know exactly how you feel. At times I felt like switching over to English just because they were making fun of my accent. Obviously they could clearly tell I wasn't from there. But still I think we need to have something to say to them. Like at least I try and yes I have an accent because it's not my native tongue, do you mind?

I've had many of the same experiences. It's a shame, but I guess the easiest way to get better is to ask your french husband to say a few words with you every night. We do this and I'm getting better at the exact pronouncation of certain words...

I guess it comes over years????

I loved all of my french classes although I thought they didn't happen enough so I lost a lot of my speaking and learning...

And yeah for another post!!! :)

Expat Traveler said...

Cyn - I think it's a french thing, that's just how 85% of the population is, especially in Paris.

Laura said...

Since when is drinking water through a funnel hazing? ;-)

Mary said...

Amy, some people just suck. I think I mentioned in an earlier comment that my Dutch was very entertaining at parties. I thought I was pronouncing something correctly and would enunciate back exactly their correction; however, they would continue laughing and bring friends over to hear me. As any good red blooded American, I just assumed they were jealous that I was American and they weren't. Or as a red blooded woman, they were jealous because I was hotter than they were.

Angela in Europe said...

New reader here and I am soooo sorry. I can completely understand because this happened to me too many times to count. I finally gave up and have just been speaking English to everyone.

From SF said...

I moved to the US many years ago from India, as a graduate student to a university in the south. It was a small town. I knew and spoke english, but with an accent, obviously. I could follow most of the hollywood movies. But the southern accents were a bit much for me to handle. However, most people who I interacted with were polite and patient. They would try to understand what I was saying and focus on the message and not on how it was being delivered. There are a few who would be turned off by my accent, especially over the telephone. Over the years, I have lived in the midwest, the east, and in the west. For the most part, I have found americans to be very accommodating of people with inadequate skills in the english language.

Over the years, I have gotten much better at speaking english, and lost a lot of my accent. But I have picked up the same attitude and tolerence that I was shown, to people who can not speak english well.

I have some british friends who correct me or mock my sentence construction sometimes. I just give them the benefit of the doubt and think they do it just to be humorous.

skan said...

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angela said...

just found you.
I sympathise totally with what you say because I've lived in France for 20 years and it still happens.
What really gets me is when you start to speak the person hears the accent, screws up their eyes and really concentrates and. then. replies. very. slowly.
Another thing, mocking people, other French, foreigners, n'importe qui, is a national sport...Just grow another skin and don't take it personally you'll wear yourself out...
Good luck,

Anonymous said...

Hey Amy,
My name is Alex and i am a french citizen living in the US.
-I just want you to know that if these "immigrants " seem to be rude to you, it's because they are not actually"immigrants". they are FRENCH MINORITIES .
I know that u guys can find that very interesting but in France, even if the medias have been trying to hide us, there are black, asian and arab minorities (MEANS BORN AND RAISED IN FRANCE, PARENTS BORN AND RAISED IN FRANCE....)

-SVP ne fais d amagalmes , il y en assez comme cela chez les francais.
La difference est que nous ne sommes et ne serons jamais des immigres, nous sommes des francais des minorites.



Anonymous said...

If you want to learn a language, you must speak the language. The next time someone switches to English or makes a strange face, repeat what they didn't understand in English and continue speaking French or just continue speaking French. Bonne chance!!!

Ps and remember, boring and limited people are rude. It doesn't matter where they come from.

aralena said...

hi - i just came upon your blog via The Paris Blog, and wanted to drop my two cents. i had a similar experience ordering a "grec" or "sandwich grec." i apparently committed the cardinal sin of omitting "sandwich" from "je voudrais un grec s'il vous plaît" and got a "je ne suis pas grec" in response. i tried to rectify the malentendu by smiling and saying sorry, a sandwich grec, but he wouldn't have it and kept glaring at me. i wanted to lean over the counter and throttle him, but i just got pissed and walked out of the joint. ugh.

anyway, love your writing - intelligent and hilarious.

-Aralena (yet another Californian in Paris!)