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 : )