It’s not that I don’t understand your language. Bien sûr que si. I’m just a whole lot more comfortable speaking my mother tongue.
After so many years in France you might think I’d be a native speaker. You’d be wrong. I’m more like a longstanding guest in a hotel, part of the decor but not quite of the party. I speak French with an accent that’s more or less obvious depending on factors like fatigue, alcohol and who I’m talking to. Sometimes it’s not so much an accent as a way of saying things that’s not quite…from here.
Which is entirely normal. When I started speaking French in my late 20s, it was already too late. Any language acquired after puberty will remain a second language. You may sound fluent, but there will be huge gaps – lacunes as they call them in French. Not just in vocabulary, but in cultural understanding.
In early attempts to integrate I tried to speak English in French. That is, by translating. In one memorable incident, I tried to describe to my mother-in-law why the bread in France was superior to that in North America. I told her, “Au Canada, on met des préservatifs dans le pain.” In Canada, they put preservatives in bread.
“Ah, bon?” she said, clearly taken aback. “Des préservatifs dans le pain?” Then she began to laugh, leaving me perplexed until she explained exactly what that meant. Turns out the proper translation was ‘agents de conservation’. ‘Preservatives’ has retained its prophylactic meaning in French.
When translation didn’t work, I tried to speak French the way I spoke English – creatively, with liberal use of slang, the unexpected adjective, slipping in a metaphor here, an abbreviation there. This also backfired. The fact is, the French don’t talk that way.
So in order to fit in, I had to change strategies. Instead of trying to replicate my English self, I learned to go with the flow. When in Rome and all that, which, by the way, the French do not say. Believe me, that one gets lost in translation.
Basically, I learned to parrot. In a kind of verbal copy and paste, I pick up phrases that French people use and insert them, verbatim, into conversation. So rather than trying to saying something the way I would in English, like “Thank god it’s Friday!”, I’ll say something similar but different, like “Vivement le weekend.”
It makes sense, after all. That’s how children learn.
And if in doubt, I just shut up. Nodding and smiling can cover 90% of any social situation.