S’endormir sur ses lauriers

Z Frenchman clowns aroundI am not the only one in our family to make bloopers and blunders in an adopted language. My husband, aka Z-Frenchman, is the first one to laugh at his own English. In fact, he’s the first one to laugh at most things. A fine sense of humour is one of his best qualities and at least part of the reason why our marriage has endured these thirty years.

From the time we first met in Toronto, we have always communicated in my native tongue, or a version of it. My French skills were non-existent back then so English was the only option. It is very difficult to change the language of a relationship. Even after living in France for nearly twenty-five years, speaking French together still feels unnatural.

We English speakers find the French ‘r’ challenging and I remember at first getting it stuck in the back of my throat and sounding like I was choking when trying to say ‘rouge’. ZF, on the other hand, found it near impossible to say ‘squirrel’. There are a lot of squirrels in Toronto and it came up a lot. His rendition of it came out sort of all squished together like ‘skweerl’.

English is all about emphasis. Hitting the right syllable remains challenging for ZF even now – he will still put the emPHASis on the wrong syllABle. I described his attempt to tell me about visiting one of our wonders of the world in this post about pronunciation.

While shopping at St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto, he was once heard to say: “I take a leek!” That got a few smiles – and at least one anxious look.

The French say ‘take’ a lot as it is a translation of ‘prendre’, the verb used in French to describe anything you buy or order. Breaking him of the ‘take’ habit has been one of my life-long missions.

Another time he advised me: “Do not fall asleep on your bay leaves.” It only took me a minute to figure that one out, along with the French translation: “Don’t rest upon your laurels.” (Ne pas s’endormir sur ses lauriers).

Raising kids in a bilingual family like ours meant that somebody always got something wrong. Howls of hilarity regularly ensued when Daddy made a boo-boo in English, or Maman got something bass-akwards en français.

For the record, Saudi Arabia in French is Arabie Saoudite, not Saudi Arabite.

Most French people have trouble pronouncing English sounds like ‘th’, turning it into ‘z’. The aspirated ‘h’ is also a problem. For some unknown reason, however, ZF often removes them from where they should be and adds them where they don’t belong. Leading to greetings like: “’Ow h-are you?”

Difficulty enunciating certain vowel sounds can still get him into trouble. Piece and piss, sheet and shit are very different concepts.

Plurals are another challenge.

As the ‘s’ is so often silent at the end of words in French, he rarely finds it necessary to add it to the English. He will ask: “Would you like some chip?” Leading one of us to add the punchline: Just the one. Like the elusive ‘h’ he will add s’s where they don’t belong: “We’re out of cereals.” Or imply a plural: “Your hair are looking nice.” I have learned to enjoy the compliment, and keep the correction to myself.

Despite our comical moments, one of which is captured in this photo from our first winter in Toronto, communicating across the language gap has not always been a walk in the park. It makes it easy to misunderstand each other, but perhaps also makes us work a little harder to try and understand the other person’s point of view.

Et toi? What’s your funniest experience of French in English?


  1. poshbirdy · March 17, 2016

    Lovely post. And a great point raised here about the subtleties of your different languages making you perhaps try harder

    • MELewis · March 17, 2016

      Thanks, Mrs. Posh. Which doesn’t prevent us like all married couples from arguing and believing we are 100% in the right!

  2. Piddlewick · March 17, 2016

    Love the post. The th sound is so so tricky. My mother is Dutch and she has never got her tongue around this sound, though she has been speaking English longer than I. As for the S… I was helping a young lad this summer with his conversation and pronunciation in English. He just could not get his head around pronouncing the s at the end of plurals. But the trickiest was the silent k (know). No matter what he had to pronounce that k.

    • MELewis · March 17, 2016

      The Dutch do so well with languages but I do see what you mean with the ‘th’. As for pronouncing the k in know, I’ve never heard that before. Must be hard to keep a straight face! 😉

      • Mél@nie · March 18, 2016

        you’re right about the Dutch: lots of them have settled down here in our Midi-Pyrénées région and they’re fluent both in French and in English, évidemment… 🙂

  3. Alpenhorn · March 17, 2016

    My husband is Dutch. It used to be whenever he would ask me to get something- for example a glass of water or a piece of paper- he would ask, “have you got some water for me?” Or “Have you got some money for me?” How rude! Now he says it just tease.

    • MELewis · March 17, 2016

      Funny what seems rude to some can vary so widely from one culture to another. One thing ZF does that drives me crazy is just say ‘no’ when offered something. I had ‘no, thank you’ drummed into my head as a child and this always sounds rude no matter how well we know each other!

  4. memoirsofahusk · March 17, 2016

    Nice! Not a personal experieince but I always find it a little amusing (despite the context) that no matter how good their English pronunciation skills most non-native speakers pronounce the 2nd ‘b’ in ‘bombing’ – bom-bing. Reminds me of the people round here who tend to say sing-ging (if you see what I mean).

    • MELewis · March 17, 2016

      That’s funny – I do know what you mean but always associated the ‘g’ with an accent from certain parts of England (Birmingham perhaps?). What’s funny is that both husband and daughter tend to pronounce our dog’s name wrong – he is called ‘Higgins’ and they always say ‘Higgings’…. 😉

  5. Anne Donnelly · March 17, 2016

    Yes that mysteriously added H gets me every time! I used you get so many greetings of ‘ello Hanne!!! and was always so baffled!

    • MELewis · March 17, 2016

      Ha, ha! Clearly the ‘h’ is a mystery for us anglos…. 😉

  6. Suzanne et Pierre · March 17, 2016

    Great post and all of it ring so true for me who learned English in my late twenties.

    One thing you said rings even truer: the fact that because you started your relationship speaking English it is difficult for you to switch to French. I have found the same thing. While working in Toronto, I would sometimes discover that someone could speak French but after we had started the relationship in English and it would be almost impossible for me to start speaking to that person in French like there was a switch in my head that identified that person as English and it couldn’t be turned back…

    Some of the other errors resonate as well. I have been known to literally translate French expressions to English and meeting blank stares. But that always got me to learn the right expression in English…Always a lot of fun learning to master the intricacies of another language. (Suzanne)

    • MELewis · March 17, 2016

      I think the absolute worst thing for me is when someone can’t decide which language we’re going to speak – or keeps switching back and forth between French and English.Or a French person that uses a lot of franglais so you end up speaking a mish-mash. Then I feel like I understand the French expression: Il ne sait pas sur quel pied danser! 😉

      • Suzanne et Pierre · March 17, 2016

        So true and the expression is spot on.

        There has ever been only person with whom I could do the back & forth from English to French. That was how we had started the relationship and he was as comfortable in both languages as I was and we had the weirdest conversations…one sentence in French then another in English then back to French. But I haven’t been able to do this with anyone else…I am certain that people who were listening to us thought we were completely crazy.

  7. Osyth · March 17, 2016

    So brilliant and so true. We have friends with varying degrees of expertise in English though only one is so fluent as to be almost faultless. Even he struggles with TH. My funny story is this – great friends of ours have three young children. The eldest is Autistic so although he is now a teen he is quite immature. He and his siblings are home educated and have been learning English through the power of song. Their mother has some English spoken with the thickest (sickest?) of accents so when she got him to sing Old MacDonald to me it was barely intelligible. Except for the pigs (oink oink here, oink oink there) … the oi had become a W coupled with a hard A sound. In the middle of our town square the pigs were **king everywhere. I had the struggle of my life not to shout NO NO NO – this is SO wrong. But being in an entirely non-English speaking area, I contented myself with a wide-eyed fixed smile. Two Brains nearly choked when I told him later at supper 😀

    • MELewis · March 17, 2016

      Hilarious! Oh to have been a fly on the wall and seen your expression. A true bi-cultural moment! 😀

      • Osyth · March 17, 2016

        I actually can’t listen to that song ever again …. My future grandchildren have been deprived (or spared) by the innocent voice of a child 😀

    • coteetcampagne · March 17, 2016

      The fixed smile works well for me in France. if I don’t quite get the gist, I might add a few empathetic expressions and, if it’s clearly a tale of woe, some well placed shakes of the head accompanied by an amazed look

      • Osyth · March 17, 2016

        I just smile and if they look alarmed quickly reverse to ennui! I may be a modern day Chaplin 😉

  8. Daiana · March 17, 2016

    I love your blog and I’m following with great interest and pleasure. As a Canadian, neither English, nor French is my birth language, but I strive to master both. The funniest French experience in Montreal was when we first came and wanted to buy a car. The french speaking salesman was telling us so excited that the car has “eated” seats and it took us a little while to figure out what he meant.

    • MELewis · March 17, 2016

      Ha, ha, that took me a moment, too! (Des sièges chauffants?) Glad you are enjoying the blog and pleased to have another fellow Canadian on board. Bienvenue!

  9. coteetcampagne · March 17, 2016

    Oh that’s funny, as are the comments.
    My best faux pas was when we first bought the house and I introduced my son-in-law to the neighbours … using the verb “introduire” I know, I know….

    • MELewis · March 18, 2016

      Ha, ha! Yes, I can imagine that you want to be careful about what or whom you introduce where…. 😉

      • coteetcampagne · March 18, 2016

        This is a perfect example of the the irrefutable fact that one cannot literally translate one language into another.
        You have to think of the feel, the sense and the structure of how something would be said in that language; and behind that stands so much of a country’s culture, history, geography, politices, infrastructure…..the list goes on.

  10. Colin Bisset · March 17, 2016

    A French friend of mine used to talk about his fingers (to rhyme with gingers) which sounded so sweet I never corrected him.

    • MELewis · March 18, 2016

      C’est mignon. Although sometimes it feels like you’re doing people a disservice not to correct their mistakes. Perhaps that’s why my French friends never seem to anything slip by….

  11. davidprosser · March 18, 2016

    Ha, my funniest experience of French in English is here. Thanks Mel for a great laugh.
    xxx Sending Massive Hugs xxx

    • MELewis · March 21, 2016

      Always very honoured to get a giggle. Merci David! xo

  12. Mél@nie · March 18, 2016

    I’ve just read this article and j’ai pensé à toi… 🙂
    * * *
    bonne soirée et une agréable fin de semaine… ❤

    • MELewis · March 21, 2016

      Ha, ha, guess this is an (almost) inexhaustable topic! Thanks for sharing, Melanie dear. Hope you’re off to a pleasant start to spring! 🙂

  13. Food,Photography & France · March 20, 2016

    One of our French friends, who spent a lot of time in London but still steadfastly retains total French pronunciation of all words English, is often surprised when the waiter brings him a sheet of paper when in fact he had asked for some pepper:)

    • MELewis · March 21, 2016

      Well, at least he was saved from having to ask for a ‘sheet’ 😉 It always fascinates me how people are able to retain such a strong native accent while becoming fluent in another language.

  14. Catherine Berry · March 21, 2016

    My biggest (I think!) faux pas came when I successfully managed to use a reflexive verb when discussing childbirth with my new French friend, effectively giving birth to myself …

    • MELewis · March 21, 2016

      Oh yes! I have got myself into some very bizarre configurations with those reflexive verbs, too. Perhaps we are all ‘rebirthed’ in some way when learning French? 😉

  15. Catherine Berry · March 21, 2016

    Ahh! I feel so much better …

  16. zipfslaw1 · March 29, 2016

    That’s funny about “squirrel”–pronouncing it in French is the challenge of my spring!

    • MELewis · March 29, 2016

      Good point – ‘écureuil’ is far from easy!

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