Tag Archives: do you speak French?

Parley-vous francais?

28 Sep

Or: How to get on when you have no idea what they’re saying

I don’t speak French. At all. In the past, I have tried to speak French in front of actual French people, to general amusement and outright laughter.

So of course I chose to move to Paris.

Yes, I know, it makes perfect sense.

My host family seems to be surprised at how well I function in a French-speaking household. I shrug and tell them it isn’t so bad. After all, I can read a French paper and get the gist of it.* The TV has subtitles on all the cartoons. And I might not be able to follow a conversation, but I can pass the butter or salt when someone asks.

At this point in my life, I’ve spent years in places where I don’t know what the hells anyone is saying. I’ve become very, very good at inferring what is going on through body language, tone of voice, and general common sense. If you concentrate it isn’t too bad. Call it my one weird skill. (Well, that, and my unerring ability to be approached and asked for directions, no matter where on Earth.)

Basically, “fake it until you make it”. I’ve found that if you brazen through, you can usually get away with a lot of poor social skills. Sure, I have no idea what the cashier said, but I certainly can read the total on the register and hand her the right amount of money. A polite smile gets me through most interactions without having to speak, other than my basic “hello” and “thank you”.

And, above all, if you can read, you can do anything. Seriously. Maps? Menus? Bus schedules? Signage? My Dad used to tease us all the time whenever we came up to him with questions that could be easily answered by reading the labelling or the internet.**

So really, my advice to the average traveller is to do basic research, learn a few key phrases, and above all, get used to not knowing what’s going on. It’s like being back in my college stats class, except with better bread.

*English and French share a lot of cognates. Plus, I have seven years of Spanish under my belt. They’re similar enough that I can figure out what’s going on. Usually. But it’s still better than my Chinese reading ability, of which I am still unable to skim a paragraph after six years. As always, see Moser for more on this.

** “That sounds like a job for The Internet!”

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