Sunday, March 6, 2016

"Comment dit-on?"

“Comment dit-on...”?

Language lessons – for real.

If I was at least halfway fluent and more business-savvy, I think I could set up a profitable plan to teach the language that you really need to know when moving to a foreign country. Most guidebooks are sufficient in instructing you on how to ask for the washrooms, how to order a baguette, and how to explain “Je ne parle pas français.” If you're bold enough to initiate a conversation, you might be able to comment on how beautiful it is on the Champs-Elycees, or that the Mona Lisa has such a mysterious smile.

When I reflect on the old high school French classes, I mainly remember learning lots of school-related vocabulary (cahiers, devoirs, stylo) and lots of discussion prompts about family relationships and vacation plans. Most of the online language tutorials seem to rely heavily on learning colors, animals, and food. (One of Eric's favorite phrases is: “Je veux un croque-monsieur” - because you never know when you're going to need a open-faced ham-and-cheese sandwich in France.) And often the combination of vocabulary words that are cobbled together in these programs is simply laughable. I always know when Bea is working with the “Duolingo” program from the bursts of laughter from her room.

        “Mom! Guess what they just asked me to translate - 'You have a lovely duck sitting on your knee!' or 'The elephants are eating an apple.' How many elephants do you think can share one apple? Do you think they cut it into slices?”

So what do you really need to know when moving to a foreign country? These are the most useful – and unexpected - lessons I've learned so far from living in France:

1.) How to speak commerce. Ah yes – think of all the obtuse financial language that you only half-understand in your native tongue – now try learning it in a foreign language. Most likely this will involve relying on the few words that you know well like “compte bancaire”, “payer”, “louer” plus a great deal of pantomime. I only hope that you will encounter a bank representative as patient as ours.

2.) How to speak tech. Whole new world here. None of these words were even around when I took high school French. I barely remember “ordinateur” (computer). And there's nothing quite like visiting the cell phone place manned by fresh-faced, fast-talking twenty-somethings to crush your confidence in your language skills. (You know how stupid you feel when a young tech-savvy person tries to explain a technological skill rapid-fire? Yeah, now imagine that in French.) I've learned that the French are polite enough to repeat themselves if you don't understand the first time, but the second time – they will only say it faster.

3.) How to speak appliances. OK, our first main frustration with appliances in France is that so few of them have any words at all. I suppose in an effort to be more inclusive, they try to use pictoral symbols rather than words. This is pretty much analogous to using IKEA directions to assemble a piece of furniture. For example, what do you suppose the “suitcase” function is on our heater? We're going on vacation? Our heater is ready for a vacation? Our heater is giving us a not-so-subtle hint that we've overstayed our welcome?

Or – how about our dishwasher with the “intensive smart” feature. I mean seriously – who would want merely clean dishes when you could have “intensively smart” dishes? I've tried this setting three times, but each time it defaults to the “eco” setting. (Clearly a sign of the
eco-terrorism in Europe, most likely.)

Our “lave linge” (washing machine) is one of the few appliances with words, so I've learned key vocabulary terms such as “rinçage”, “essorage” and “vidange.” However, recently the “vidange” (drain) feature didn't work, so I had to talk to the repairman about it. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Uhh, la lave linge ne marche pas.” (The washing-machine doesn't work.)
Jean-Luc: “Quel est le problème?” (followed by some rapid-fire questions)
Me: “Uhh, il se lave, mais l'eau reste dedans,...uhhh...en bas.” (It washes, but the water stays at the bottom.)
Jean-Luc: rapid-fire questions, unintelligible
Me: “Uhh, et la dernière fois, il...comment dit-on...overflowed.

** Sidebar: In my opinion, “comment dit-on” is the single most helpful phrase in trying to communicate in French. Literally it simply means “how do you say...” which may seem childlike, but at least it always results in a smile. (Varying from genuine smiles to those tinged with thinly-veiled condescension.) Regardless, I'm convinced that even if you're talking like a toddler who can't even conjugate a simple verb, at least it shows that you're trying! At least, Jean-Luc knew I was trying.

Jean-Luc: “over... quoi?
Me: “Uhh, comme ça” followed by desperate pantomime. (This is far more successful than you might expect. Though by now I've now made a fool of myself by pantomiming in at least three different countries, so I'm pretty much an expert.)
Jean-Luc: “Ah oui bien sûr..” (More rapid-fire unintelligible French.)

In the end, he simply shrugged and said: "Hm, c'est bizzare” then asked me to call when it happens again. But he was very kind, complimented my French, and explained that:
C'est Marseille. Nous avons un accent, et nous parlons tres rapidement.” (It's Marseille. We have an accent, and we talk very quickly.”)
Then he slowed down dramatically and said: “Si je parle doucement comme ça, vous pourriez me comprendre.” (“If I talk gently like this, you could understand me.”)
He then returned to his rapid-fire French, saying, “Mais quand je parle rapidement....” unintelligible, unintelligible...

When he slowed down in that one sentence, it was probably my single clearest moment of comprehension in France – though fleeting.

4.) How to speak about errors in sales. OK, so this could be simple enough if it was the case of a mispriced item, but let's say - hypothetically speaking of course – that you get home and realize that you've been charged twice for one bottle of whisky. What if you realize that you don't have any solid proof that you only bought one bottle of whisky, so you have to put your best face forward and try to explain in bad French that you're not the type of person who could drink two bottles of whisky in one day. In this case, I would suggest the most important factor is not language skills, but imaging. I would recommend – hypothetically speaking - that you borrow a cute 7-year old to look as wholesome and family-friendly as possible. I mean, statistically speaking, a good, upstanding, nurturing parent with a cute 7-year old is 50% less likely to drink two bottles of whisky in one day. (Or 70% more likely, depending on the temperament of said 7-year old. But those are the outliers, I digress.) In this case, the cute 7-year old – preferably in pigtails and a red raincoat with trains on it – is the best bet to succeed in correcting a mistake and getting credit for your

Fortunately, the French love kids, so make sure to bring one along.


  1. You have a gift for wry humor that left me chuckling even after moving on to the task of prepping for second hour... Keep posting! Infuse with photos, too, please! Miss you!

  2. Love it, dear Anne. Miss you. Amusez-bien!!!

  3. Anne, It's wonderful to hear from you! I'm looking forward to continuing to read about your adventures.
    Missing you!