Speaking French like a Spanish cow

Much ruder than not speaking French

The British like to beat themselves up about their ignorance of foreign languages – ooh it’s so rude, they tell you, usually looking not particularly ashamed of themselves, it has to be said. Actually it’s not that rude at all – what’s rude is marching up to people and addressing them in a loud voice in English and then complaining when they don’t have a clue what you’re on about. An apologetic smile and a lot of comedy miming is much more likely to get you the service you desire, if only because everyone likes a clown.

But be reassured by the fact that it’s not just a British thing – French colleagues often tell me how terrible their countrymen are at speaking other languages, and how shocking it is. And Italians abroad behave exactly the same as monoglot Brits. I don’t speak Italian, signor. No, not even at that volume.

Russians - not generally very chirpy

Mind you, Italians are generally more than willing to embark on the comedy mime routine, unlike Russians, who just stare at you morosely before handing over incomprehensible ID cards in Cyrillic. I don’t care who you are, sir, I just need to know whether you want ski insurance or not. (Though this is a difficult one to mime, I grant you.)

Having wasted half my life and nearly all of my expensive education on bumming about France when I ought to have been doing some sort of ‘proper’ job, I now find that people assume me to be fluent in the language. Unfortunately this is far from the truth, though I do manage to deal with daily life and hold down a (fairly uncomplicated) Francophone job, so my mastery of the lingo is functional if nothing else.

When I first started working in France it was for Eurocamp as a van driver. At this point I had nothing more to rely on than school French, which proved a poor tool when trying to book a Renault Master in for service to a place which can’t deal with anything bigger than a Twingo. You’d think Europcar would have checked that one out before telling us to get the things serviced there, but apparently not.

By the end of several summer camping seasons and numerous winters in ski resort hotels my grasp of French had improved to the extent that I could just about have actual conversations. As long as you wanted to talk about drainage, frozen food deliveries or the workings (or more likely lack of them) of an industrial dishwasher, at any rate.

A summer in Marché U revealed that my French, considered pretty good in a UK tour op environment, had in fact failed to progress beyond village idiot level. Formerly in a position of power as hotel manager, valued customer and person handing out lucrative orders, I was now merely some incompetent foreigner making the supermarket shopping experience even more irritating than usual. This put me in a position where people initially assumed that I was French (not unreasonable really) before rapidly coming to the conclusion that I was a complete retard. Quite a lot of them never made it as far as realising that I was foreign and most of the ones who did just found it annoying. One woman spent several minutes trying to ascertain where the tights were (collants, apparently, though not having worn the hideous things for 20 years I clearly wouldn’t have a clue) before stomping off muttering that she’d better go and ask someone with a brain. Probably a good strategy, madame. Sorry.

Large carnivore. Not usually found in supermarkets.

And just when you think you’ve mastered it, someone comes and knocks you off your perch. Like the chap who came in and asked me for a badger. Where are the badgers, he said cheerfully, you’ve got lots of soap in dishes but no badgers. Errrr …… Ou sont les blaireaux, yes he definitely did say what I thought he did. “Badgers!” he said again, this time miming the act of putting shaving foam on. Light dawned – shaving brushes are traditionally made of badger hairs. (I have no idea why I knew that, but it certainly came in handy – just shows that you should never turn your nose up at any piece of information, however pointless it may seem at the time.)

A summer in the supermarket proved good training for winter in the ticket sales office, where the language problem is compounded by the fact that there is a glass plate between you and the customer and you have to communicate via a not particularly effective microphone system. Winter also brings the joys of a whole slew of new vocabulary, including the word justificatif, which you have to say to every single customer. Go on, try it – bet you can’t.

I practised justificatif religiously all winter, to the extent that I can now throw it casually into any conversation at the drop of a hat without needing to take a deep breath and a run at it. It took the best part of four months and a lot of ribbing from colleagues on occasions when I wussed out and said ticket instead.

My next linguistic project is saying en dessous and managing to distinguish it from au dessus – I can hear the difference if someone else says it, but buggered if I can reproduce it myself. This is awkward given that the first means underneath and the second on top. It’s at times like this that you suspect the language was invented just to confuse the foreigner. I know, let’s have phrases which mean the exact opposite to one another but sound almost the same – what a lark! That’ll teach people to have the temerity not to be French.

According to JC, the vowel sound which I have so signally failed to master is showcased by Disney’s King Louis in its 1967 animation of The Jungle Book. So if you arrive to buy a lift ticket next winter and find the cashier swinging round the office and expressing a desire to be like you-oo-oo, don’t worry – it’s just language practice.

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About misplacedperson

Camping and snowboarding for a living. It may not be a career, but it's certainly a life.
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20 Responses to Speaking French like a Spanish cow

  1. So funny! this brought back so many memories! I too have great difficulty with en dessous and au dessus – I have to admit I have pretty much given up, but I think maybe I’ll try practising The Jungle Book method too :)

  2. Charlotte says:

    I can’t get the oo or the eu either – my dad despairs of me. :(

  3. Bib says:

    I will always remember my French Master telling the class during first term how to attempt the correct pronunciation of “u”: “purse up your lips just like when you kiss your favourite Teddy goodnight, and try to say E”. He was a vile, disturbed and disturbing man but obviously a good teacher in that respect at least.

    • Good grief, it works as well. It’s the other sound I hae a problem with though – what was his suggestion for that?

      • Bib says:

        Oh if only I could remember that as well …. but sadly not. I do remember though that he was a bit of a fatso, and one year we came back from summer holidays to find that some wag had painted in HUGE letters all across the playground “R****LD – YOU’RE ONLY BIG AROUND THE WAIST”. :o) (Actual name asterisked out because he was a seriously nasty man, and for all I know there are still legal actions pending).

  4. Newminster says:

    “It’s the other sound I hae a problem with…”
    Lapsing back intae wir native Scots, are we, hen?

  5. However I pronounce Maroilles when asking for it on the cheese counter the blasted woman will always correct me…

  6. My friends always piss themselves about the time I said ‘J’ai mal au cul’ when what I really wanted to say was ‘J’ai mal au cou!’ Oh! and the time I had spent the day painting my new house and said to a friend ‘ne me fais pas la bise, je pue!’ (except I pronounced it ‘poo’ or rather ‘Pooh’ as in Winnie, which is what they all now call me. Forgiving little souls the French!

  7. Practise saying ‘J’ai un pull et aussi une poule!’…

    • I shall try to say that to everyone who comes for a lift ticket tomorrow afternoon.

    • StewartP says:

      Yep I’ve been guilty of saying that it’s a bit fresh out, I must put a chicken on.

      There is only one solution: practice practice practice. Total immersion. French TV, French radio, french papers, french friends

      • StewartP says:

        And ignore the aresholes who accuse you of trying to be french.
        It is ironic, is it not, that many of the people who have left England because of (amongst other reasons) immigration, fail to integrate and become the Pakistanis of France!

      • I’m sure there must be some terribly obvious reason why that’s just not the same thing at all. Haven’t stumbled upon it myself as yet though, I have to say.

  8. Ski-finder says:

    Loving the blog! Wanted to be kept up to date when you post new entries, turns out in adding this commnt I can! :)

  9. Ollie says:

    Thanks for the story. Me too as far as dessous vs. dessus is concerned. Have studied phonetics a bit though lately and its really helping in terms of language pronunciation. So I thought I’d share the following. Essentially its about where in your mouth the sound is physically produced, the difference between the two is that in dessous the sound is produced from the far back of the mouth -throat region – whilst dessus is produced from the front of the mouth. Both are “close” sounds i,e your jaw is pretty closed when speaking.
    Check out this page with phonetic sounds diagrams:http://www.paulmeier.com/ipa/vowels.html
    dessous = /dəsu/
    dessus = /də.sy/
    Hope it helps.

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