November 18, 2008

Trying to grasp the local dialect

The problem with the French in London is that most of them speak English. Well, most of them also with the worst accent you can think of - I mean, really, do they take some kind of pride in asking for a “shit of paper”? Still, accent set aside, the UK-based French master the “langue de Shakespeare” fairly decently. Which means that, for the last ten years, I could happily and lazily speak a mix of French, English, and anything in between, when talking to my French friends in London, without having to worry that that I was, strictly speaking, not making much sense (do I ever anyway?).

Back on the other side of the Channel, this has now become a problem. It all became apparent for the first time last year. I was France-bound, in a taxi, heading off to a meeting and having the usual where-do-you-come-from-today-what-are-you-up-to conversation with the cabbie (well, the taxi driver rather; they don’t have cabbies in France - that’s because cockney does not translate well in French, I think). All rather mundane stuff, until the driver said: “of course you still have an accent, but really, your French is pretty good”, at which point I realised with horror he thought I was English. I mean, I may be happily criticising the French every time I have the opportunity. But being mistaken for a Brit? In France? That was just beyond embarrassing.

More than a year has passed since that doomed day and the situation has little, if at all, improved.

I got another “so, you are English, right?” from my banker when opening my account, despite the fact she had just been checking my passport. Although, granted, not sure how much that says about the level of my French and how much about my bank’s positive discrimination policy in favour of brainless employees.

Recently, one of Martin’s colleagues told me that I must be happy that, with Geneva airport so close, it was easy to go back home to England for a few days.

I am thinking of employing my dad part-time as my editor, given that I have to ask him to check my French every time I have to write something remotely official. I also now refuse to help Martin do his French exercises since the day he managed to achieve the fantastic score of a 100% failure rate on an exercise he had done entirely with me.

As we were spending time with friends a few weekends ago, I had to admit to Martin, that, no, I could not tell him what one of the guys had said, because I too had problems with his accent, losing a bit more of the little credibility I still had with my husband when it comes to speaking French.

Last but not least, half of our friends here must think of me as the ultimate poseur since I cannot have a conversation without saying at least once per minute “err, not sure how you say that in French”.

So here I am. My French sucks, but there are still only the French to think I can pass for a Brit. Maybe we should have moved to Switzerland. That would at least give me an excuse for sounding a bit funny when speaking French.


topo said...


NLabib said...

If it's any consolation, my father has the same trouble in Egypt! Years away do erode the accent and the easy flow of vocabularly. Still, I'm sure it will improve with time! xx