Thursday, September 21, 2006

How to Speak French in Paris

The Advantages of Speaking French

This week I ran across an article in the on-line New Yorker Magazine titled In the Waiting Room; The Advantages of Speaking French. The story is about a newly expatriated American living in Paris who abandones taking French courses because he finds it very difficult to learn French. He starts to simply respond to everything with d'accord. D'accord means I am in agreement or "OK." The author never really understands what is being said; he just says d'accord being led from one situation to another, ironically like a protagonist in a French existentialist novel. One day after saying d'accord several times at the doctor's office, the author finds himself in a doctor's waiting room in his underwear as fully dressed people enter and wait for their appointments. He has already said d'accord so he will not return to the examination room to dress and save his dignity.

I can really relate to this story. There are times when I absolutely understand nothing of what is being spoken in French and I need something to say.

Things to Say in French

I read another article about phrases to say the indicate that you understand, even if you do not.
- Hmmm. Ca veut dire quoi, ça ?
- Ah bon ?
- Bien sûr !
- Tout à fait.
- Voilà !
Basically one can get the sense of the converstation and reply correctly without having understood a single word.

Negatively Posed Questions

There are certain words to listen for when trying to respond. The French often pose questions in the negative looking for a positive answer... "Did you not watch the soccer game ?" The answer is clear if one listens for the words "Did you not... ". The answer is always "Si, si" which means "yes indeed" or "I did so..." It does not matter what this means, the answer is always "Si, si", a minimum of two times and sometimes three or four times depending on the emphasis you wish to convey.

Guy Talk

The other day at lunch several of the French guys were talking about their houses (of which I do not have, living in an apartment) and the kitchen upgrades in which they were engaged (yawn). I had absolutely no interest but they were nice enough to invite me to join them for lunch. I am not a real homebody and even the English words are a challenge for me.

For example... you tell me, what is the difference between a hammer, mallet, maul and gavel ? And then there are jack hammers, framing hammers, claw hammers, upholstery hammers, ball-peen hammers and club hammers. And these words are just for hammers. Well you get it. In French, speaking of the words for specific tools, how to use them and where to buy them was such a particularly specific disdiscourse that I never really understood a single word at lunch. I nodded my head said, Ah oui? and Ah...d'accord, and D'accord, je vois quite a few times but I was really thinking of my next vacation in a warm place.

Guy talk is absolutely impossible and the best possible recourse is to say d'accord.

Traps While Speaking French

D'accord is such a great answer except when responding to certain phrases. When someone asks, How ... or Why ... Tell me about ...., one cannot answer d'accord. It would not make sense. One must recognise those key words and come up with a reasonable response. This is not so easy, not having understanding the question in the beginning. I have found that I can always, shrug my shoulders, raise my hands and say bofff......, blowing out some air like the French often do and then walk away. The French like to complain and they are very cynical and sarcastic so this gesture is quite a French thing to do. The other French person will certainly understand even if you do not.

The Problem of Speaking a Little French

I am at the point where I can speak French with ease and understand 98% of something that I have done before. Buying bread, groceries, asking directions... no problem. It's a routine. The problem is that when I speak French, even with an American accent, the French think I understand French 100%. Anything out of the ordinary or new and I am totally lost.
- Bonjour madame, une baguette s'il vous plait. (simple; just a baguette. I'm speaking French !)
- Oui monsieur, coupée en deux ? (ah, what ? total confusion; what the heck does that mean ?!)
- um..., um, ... ah... d'accord. (let's see if that works. If not I can always fake it and say 'boff'.)
- voilà monsieur (wow, it worked. That must mean they cut the baguette in two pieces.)
Taking French Courses

I took French courses during high school like many American students but for me the choice of taking French was mainly because the young female French Teacher was more charming and beautiful than the overweight, beer drinking, middle-aged male German Teacher.

After I began a career with a global French company, I restarted my French training, first within a group of students and coworkers and then with private tutoring. Now that I live in Paris, I continue my French lessons with a private professor. That makes more than ten years of lessons. Some of us will never learn.

Speaking French with Confidence

Confidence in speaking French is very imporant. Attitude is a key factor in interactions with the French. I certainly have advanced over the years but there are certain times when someone asks me a question very rapidly when there is a lot of noise or converstations nearby. There are times when I do not understand at all. I have a solution, however. I am confident in giving an answer and will act accordingly. I look at them straight in the eye, lean forward and I with all confidence possible, I say......... d'accord.

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Blogger Pinky said...


thanks for your kind comments on The Poison Doughnut! Each in our own way, we contribute to and enrich the beautiful world of blogs!

I enjoyed this post. I thought it was quite erudite and accurate. I am actually a high school French teacher in real life, having lived over there for 2 years.

I try to keep French for the day job and everything else for online, but I really love reading reading about your experiences and remembering my own. Please keep it up!


Tue Sep 26, 04:52:00 AM GMT+2  
Anonymous Linda in Ohio :-) said...

I cannot tell you how much I am enjoying your blog. This article in particular kept me laughing for days and I eagerly anticipate the next entry. (Not to mention your magnificant photography) I am slowly being educated in the nuances of life in Paris. I love it. Of course now I have to wait two whole weeks for more. sigh. Hope you're having fun in Spain and taking lots of pictures.

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