I have never understood how exactly my confidence in French can vary within a short time-frame. I don’t feel the same on a Monday morning about life in Paris as I do by Friday afternoon. Certainly, if a lecture is that bad, I don’t feel the same about my French capacities after 3 hours of hopeless note taking. I can’t decide if life in Paris is the best or worst thing I have ever endured. It also seems that my ability fluctuates wildly, but not for lack of trying.
Last week, amid avoiding all revision for current exams, I went shopping. Armed with my French overdraft, I confidently strolled around Les Halles like a local. 3 different exchanges stuck with me;
- Firstly, I was stopped by two French girls. I expected to be asked for directions, which is generally a daily occurrence, despite having the worst sense of direction. Instead, they launched into a whirlwind conversation, during which I stared blankly at them until I vaguely heard “So, where is your coat from?”. I did my best to explain, and although their faces fell when they heard my accent, I’m pretty sure I was understood. Who knows what the beginning of that conversation was? Regardless, they thanked me and walked off, seemingly satisfied with my answers. Sophie 1, Paris 0. Kind of.
- With a tentative confidence, I attempted to exchange a belt. The elements of this were definitely basic – I bought this five minutes ago / No, I did not try the size / Here is a belt of correct size for the same price / Here is the receipt etc. The challenge is that when in a large shopping centre like Les Halles, most sales assistants can speak English, and so often answer anyone with a foreign accent in English to save time. I managed to exchange the belt AND the woman spoke to me in French, despite some sighing and foot tapping from the lady queuing behind me. Sophie 2, Paris 0.
- Picture this: A changing room queue. Everyone in relative silence, on their phones whilst waiting. Woman in front of me approaches man working; he asks how many items, she answers, brief chitchat and direction towards an empty cabin. I approached. Man asked, how many items? I answered “J’ai quatre”. All of a sudden, he launched into perfect English. How exactly did he know I was foreign from the 9 letters I uttered, given that I hadn’t spoken any English beforehand? (In that moment, it felt a lot like Sophie -10, Paris 100).
Everyone finds this 3rd story hilarious. My flatmate is convinced it’s une question de tonalité. Another French girl thinks I was too polite and I should have answered more forcefully, a true sign of Parisian nature (i.e, they’re always rude). Another thinks I have “English eyebrows”. Basically, no one can pinpoint how exactly these two words signalled me out as non-francophone. If I let every moment like this give me a complex, I think I would be too scared to ever open my mouth. To think I have been counting in French for a solid decade now, my pronunciation surely can’t be that dire?
So, how to react when answered in English?
When Dad visited with his interesting array of French skills, he insisted that everyone – hotel receptionist, waiter, anyone we spoke to – continued in French with him, regardless of how limited his understanding may have been. This is hard to practice on a daily basis. Perhaps the shop worker is too busy to explain themselves twice; maybe it’s part of their work guidelines to offer a response in English (or another language) to foreign customers. Maybe they are genuinely trying to be helpful?
I think you develop a thick skin from certain experiences abroad. What I find difficult is that I can go from a rewarding, interesting conversation with someone one moment, feeling on the precipice of fluency, to blind panic about how to pronounce “croissant” the next. I’m not sure whether this problem is heightened in Paris, given so many people I encounter daily have a good level of English ready to deploy at the slightest sign of weakness. I’m often caught in a weird cycle of attempting French, being answered in English and both parties continuing stubbornly to prove an abstract point, determined to carry on despite how bizarre the situation becomes.
If I’m answered in French?
What is clear; the Parisians do not hold back on correcting my French, even if they can technically understand what I am saying. I’ve grown to take it as a backhanded compliment; if someone is willing to converse in French with me, perhaps corrections are a small indication that they want to help achieve this fluency dream of the year abroad stereotype. However, I don’t believe it will ever stop being a disappointment; to offer my best French and be answered in English before I’ve even finished my sentence…
The dream remains; to go a whole week participating in Parisian life, having French chats with everyone I see and generally feeling francophone without instances of panic or shame over my language skills. Disclaimer – not a single French staff member at Diderot has spoken to me yet in English (not including my Personal tutor). I just get an empty stare / no response for encouragement.
Sometimes, I think I just need to laugh at myself. Whether it’s being told that I have the worst French accent a man has EVER heard, or having to participate in a pantomime to order food in Five Guys (if the menu is in English, what is so wrong about my pronunciation?), I’m not sure if my accent will ever stop amusing or confusing people à Paris. At least I can continue to eat croissants and attempt to dress like the Parisians, even if I need to stay silent to preserve the illusion.