Parlez-vous franglais?

hollywood_style_coktailJust because English is your mother tongue doesn’t mean you know how to speak it in French. And few things frustrate the French more than your inability to understand their English. Here’s a quick survival guide to speaking and understanding franglais.

“Schwingahm?” The first time someone asked me this, I thought they were speaking neither French nor English but some other language – Finnish or possibly Swahili. The proffered pack of gum made me realize my mistake, and learn my first word of franglais. Chewing gum.

Another good one is shampooing, the official French word for shampoo. (Listen to the rather surprising pronunciation.) It took awhile before I made the connection with the English word.

The French have a penchant for taking English words and adding ‘ing’ to the end to make their own versions. Most of the time they pronounce it like we do, with extra emphasis on the last syllable. So you’ll hear things cocooning, footing, relooking.

It’s been ages since I set foot in a McDonalds. But when my kids were young I remember the challenges of ordering in that restaurant as the menu was full of English words that I couldn’t seem to pronounce correctly in French: “Un happy meal, un coca light, un menu maxi-best of…”

The French also like to use brand names as short-cuts. I remember asking my mother-in-law, using my textbook French: “As-tu un mouchoir?” She looked at me blankly for a moment, then said, “Tu veux dire un kleenex?” (The correct term is actually mouchoir en papier, distinguishing a tissue from a handkerchief.) You’ll often hear things like ball-point pens called stylo-bic, a whirlpool bath called un jacuzzi, sticky tape called du scotch. And, as immortalized by former president Sarkozy, a high-pressure cleaner called un karcher*.

Another former prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, famously took franglais from the sublime to the ridiculous with this speech: 

The use of franglais is somewhat controversial in France, yet so deeply engrained in la vie quotidienne that it would be impossible to eradicate. And why even try? The illustrious members of the Académie Française (the same geezers who were responsible for the trademark infringement of my name) would have you believe that the encroaching anglo invasion will lead to the disappearance of French as we know it. But I would say that the way the French take an English word and make it completely their own – through meaning, pronunciation, usage – actually strengthens the French language.

Here’s my list of some commonly used terms of franglais:

Un snack. This is not something you eat but a place that sells it, ie a snack bar.

Un toast. Why the French prefer ‘toast’ to pain grillé is a mystery but they use both terms. They also borrow the term ‘porter un toast’ when it comes time to raise a glass – (also: ‘lever un verre’). Which happens a lot.

Un fast food. It’s easy to see why the French didn’t bother inventing their own word for fast-food, aka un McDo (pronounced: mac-doh). For most French people, fast food is an aberration of American invention that has, regretfully, become part of modern life. Oddly enough, the French version of McDonalds is called Quick.

Un soft. Well, you could say logiciel (software) but it is so much trendier to use English.

Un rave party. Why they feel the need to add ‘party’ always strikes me as bizarre (although possibly because ‘rave’ is a kind of root vegetable). But the concept is the same.

Le weekend. The French adopted the English word, while our French Canadian cousins say ‘la fin de semaine’. Pronunciation tip: put the emphasis on the last syllable and barely pronounce the ‘d’

Un best of. Same meaning as in English, but more broadly applied to a collection of the best moments in a campaign, chronicle or television show…and as mentioned above, the most popular combo at McD’s. Note that the French will say ‘off’ instead of ‘of’, making it sound like un best-off.

Un happy end. A happy ending to any story, especially a film or TV show. For once without the ing.

La French touch. This term was coined to loosely describe the influence of French groups like Daft Punk on electronic music, especially house. But it is now more broadly used to denote any specialty in which the French bring their own special creative expertise, as seen by the rest of the world. High-end luxury goods, animation, video games, fine foods…

Le leadership. There is no French word for leader or leadership. The closest translation is ‘direction’ but this word can mean anything from the management of a supermarket to the steering of a car. There is also no French equivalent for the concept of leading people (I would be tempted to venture that this is in itself revelatory of something, ie that the French refuse to be led…)

And here’s one I recently overhead in a conversation on the street:  “T’as vu le self-control?”

Want to savoir plus? Entire books have been devoted to franglais. You can read a good writeup on Wikipedia about its history and use in different parts of the world here. And following some recent controversy around English teaching in French universities, this topic is back in the headlines. The following NY Times article provides a good overview.

*One of Sarko’s most renowned political blunders was his pledge to clean up the city’s bad neighbourhoods with a “karcher”. Looks like somebody in that company’s PR department is trying to undo the damage caused by this unasked-for publicity, as you can see here.

Those who can’t

shutterstock_16017178“You can always teach English.” That recurring refrain was my fallback position when I moved to France. As it happened, it proved both the truth and the lie in the expression, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

Teaching English got me into the working world in my adopted country. It got me healthcare benefits and helped pay the bills for a couple of years. Compared to the salary I’d been making as a copywriter in a Toronto ad agency, it paid peanuts. But I was grateful for the job.

But here’s the thing: I can’t teach.

I’m pretty good at doing one or two things myself. But I’m fairly useless at teaching others how to do them. I’m not very comfortable disserting to a group (although put me at a dinner table and give me a glass of wine, and I’ll dissert until dessert).

It turns out you don’t need any special skills to teach English as a second language in France. The woman who took my application at the language school in Paris told me the only requirement was to have English as your mother tongue. And it helped to be familiar with the corporate world as many of the students were senior executives.

I felt perfectly comfortable dealing with business people but expressed some doubt about the actual teaching. “I’m not sure I remember all that much of my English grammar,” I confessed. The lady was reassuring: “You don’t need it. We will give you the methodology. You will teach according to our manual. All of the pedagogic skills and tools will be provided.”

The French, I learned, use words like pedagogy and methodology a lot. They like to make things sound as technical as possible.

So I signed up to become a teacher at Berlitz. The teacher training program took place over a few days in La Défense, the slick business sector of Paris. We were a mixed bag of English speakers – several Brits, a couple of Aussies, one or two Americans and moi, the token Canuck.

As a Canadian it turned out that I was a particularly attractive commodity: they could sell me to teach either British or American English. “We prefer English, of course, but American is greatly in demand in the business world,” explained the responsable pédagogique (head teacher), with some distaste. The way he said ‘American’ made it sound like a completely different language. This was my first encounter with the hierarchy of the English language: Brittania rules in academia but the business world reports to the US.

The first thing they taught us was the golden rule of the Berlitz method of language training: we must never speak French to our students – they must be forced into speaking English. This would take some doing with the French, who wanted to learn English without having to actually speak it.

This is where the method came in.

The head teacher, a dapper Roddy McDowell-type, stood in front of the class and gave us a live demonstration. He slipped his hand inside his jacket and pulled out a pen.

“I am holding a pen. What am I holding?”  He nodded in my direction.

“A pen?” I answered, feeling silly. He shook his head and repeated the question.

“I am holding a pen. What am I holding?”  I blanked.

“You are holding a pen.” The answer came from one of the Brits, who was clearly way ahead in his pedagogy.

“That’s correct. I am holding a pen. Now, you have all the skills you need to teach English according to the Berlitz method.”

As teaching methods go, it was mind-numbing but effective. By the end of the day, I would be so brainwashed by the method that I couldn’t stop speaking that way. My husband would ask what was for dinner, and I would say, “What are we having for dinner? We are having chicken for dinner.”

The idea was that the students would quickly get a working grasp of the language. The finer points of grammar and vocabulary would come, if not by osmosis, through practice. But you have to factor in for the French resistance.

The French believe themselves to be very poor at foreign languages. Although most high school students study Hamlet, few can actually put a sentence together in la langue de Shakespeare. English is taught by native French-speakers and French is the language of instruction. Teachers are state employees who must be French nationals. Few have actually lived outside of France.

All of which means that students are used to having everything explained in French. If they get the slightest inkling that you speak their language, they will persist in asking you questions in French. Which defeats the purpose.

During the time I taught English, I learned a lot about the French. I would use the method during the 40-minute lessons as fact-finding missions to discover as much as I could about their culture, what they did for a living, what they ate for dinner, where they did their shopping or traveled on vacation. It was my own French immersion training.

I also learned that I truly had no aptitude for teaching. When you’re not good at something, it’s hard to enjoy doing it — even harder to excel. And I was humbled to observe that many of my fellow teachers really could teach.

Thankfully, teaching English was only a transition for me. Eventually I worked my way back into doing what I do best, first as a translator, then in PR communications.

Bottom line: Those who can, teach. Those who can’t should consider doing something else.

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?