How not to speak French

shutterstock_76683514Psst! You over there…the one speaking French so fluently. Mind if we switch to English?

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.

Cracker, anyone?


  1. phildange · June 2, 2013

    You see, there are French people who like playing with the language, just like you . These people can be met in every country I guess . So “liberal use of slang, the unexpected adjective, slipping in a metaphor here, an abbreviation there” are games some of us play when in the mood .. I’d think understanding problems around you more came from an unsuitable use of eccentricities . Even when you play out of the frame you have to know the frame …

    • MELewis · June 2, 2013

      I think you are right — it’s all about context. Now I’m better able to judge when it’s appropriate to step ‘out of the frame’ and even manage the odd play on words in French. It’s true that the French language is rich…but you need a good vocabulary to be able to play with it. Thanks for your insight!

  2. Wife After Death · June 20, 2013

    Love it!
    I lived in Amiens for a couple of years after I graduated. I needed to buy some furniture for my new aparte. I boldly asked the shop assistant:
    “Je voudrais acheter la table en pine”
    Couldn’t understand why she was smirking…

    • MELewis · June 20, 2013

      Lol! That is one for the annals — or the ‘anals’ as I’ve heard the French say!

  3. midihideaways · June 29, 2013

    Brilliant article!! And Wife after Death’s comment and your reply still has me laughing!! Parrot fashion learning is fine, worked for me too – but I have no idea of grammar and they whys and hows, but do I care?? 🙂 And more importantly, do the French??

    • MELewis · June 29, 2013

      Glad we made you smile! You cannot learn a language without making a few bloopers and blunders along the way and it’s good to hear about other people’s red-faced moments. The grammar is not important to me but I do think the French care about it — especially if you get it wrong!

      • midihideaways · June 30, 2013

        I’ve found that most people are too polite to correct me when I get it wrong, which is a shame at times as it would help improve my skills. I made a choice to stay away from language classes so far – I often see people from those classes struggle and worry about getting what they say right, to the extent that they’ll never get over their inhibitions and never manage to hold a fluent conversation. To me it’s all about communicating, and if I blunder we can have a laugh and carry on 🙂

  4. Grace · September 6, 2013

    I totally get where you’re coming from. 🙂

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  6. mobile games · April 6, 2014

    Greetings! Very helpful advice within this post!
    It’s the little changes that produce the most significant changes.

    Many thanks for sharing!

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  8. Elena@Elena's Travelgram · November 24, 2014

    Haha! I once used “des préservatifs” when talking about yogurt and got a really weird stare from my friend who got hysterical afterwards too 🙂

    English is my 3rd language, yet I’ve spent years since childhood learning it and now speak with a really slight accent, a few people manage to identify as “foreign”. When I started learning French in my mid-twenties…I was sure it would be easy as “hey, I know English!”. How wrong I was… 😉

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