French for Visiting or Living in France?
Whether travelling or living in France, there is always the consideration of vocabulary, in fact the type and stages of vocabulary. I say “vocabulary”, when I mean in fact the construction of what you might want to say in general. I will try and qualify this in the article, and highlight some examples.
There is perhaps a fine distinction between each, the holidaymaker and the tourist, the temporary visitor and the full-time resident, the city-dweller and the villager, and so on. The vocabulary changes to suit the situation. For example as a holiday maker, generally the vocabulary in limited to shopping in the supermarket, eating and drinking in restaurants and bars, asking for simply directions and following road signs, and sending postcards. The tourist builds upon this, but adding places of interest, understanding guidebooks, and listening to a tour guide, sometimes not speaking their native language, if at all.
Then there is the great divide, that is to say the gap between the tourist and the temporary visitor that has widened considerably. The temporary visitor for one thing or another has to involve him or herself in some detailed conversation with officialdom or enterprise for form-filling, reconstruction or repairs. Simple language just doesn’t cut it. The language required for permissions, planning, and production need perspicacity. (PPPP – as opposed to the other PPPPPP, which can be just as relevant.) There are no shortcuts, short of finding a translator that takes time and some prior arrangement. However there is nothing that can give a bigger boost to confidence than to do it yourself.
The permanent resident has not only that yawning chasm but the additional burden of conversation. The weather is not always the general topic of conversation, although it is mildly discussed. Gossip is king in France, sad as it may be. It is always handy to have a juicy piece of news about which to chat. In our region it is not always easy to “latch on” to the topic of the day, due to the different accents at play.
In the southwest Creuse, the prevalent accent is of Occitan (pronounced oc-sitan). This accent plays horribly with common words leaving them unintelligible. My neighbour often tells me that he was off to the village “pour chercher le pamm.” He grows a lot of vegetables to “nourir les lappam”. It took me just a while to comprehend that he meant “pain” and “lapins”. In fact it worked the other way on one occasion, when explaining to him and his partner, that late one night we returned home having seen “des sangliers dans le chemin”. I know it wasn’t my English accent that caught them wondering, but after he asked “what were Les Anglais doing in our lane so late at night”, we then both saw the funny side. We then asked him to be careful when he went hunting on the weekend just in case there was any confusion.
Our first foray into the community was our first Christmas Market, where members of the comité d’animation were preparing an evening meal with entertainment. Anne and I volunteered, not for the entertainment, but for peeling potatoes and onions, carrots and swede for the poule au pot. At the time we were the only British couple in the commune, and knew none of our fellow peelers, but we were made welcome, although not able to join in the rapid and noisy conversation to any effect. One lady was wonderful and spoke to Anne slowly and deliberately so both of us were able to join in. During the preparation, I was helping to put up the Christmas decor in the Salle Polyvalente, by pushing around the floor, a mobile scaffold (échafaudage) , with the chairman of the tourist office at the top, tying garlands and balloons to the fixtures. However despite the lack of communication, which is nigh-on impossible with the band at full volume anyway, our participation in the event was welcomed, and repeated for St. Sylvestre, New Years Eve.
As a result of our involvement, I was asked to become a member of one team for the upcoming local elections for the conseil d’administration of our commune. Canvassing for votes was interesting, as some of the locals on which we called had yet to be brought kicking and screaming into the 20th century, as the 21st century was merely a figment of our imagination. In a commune of just over 500 inhabitants, it was surprising to see such a large turnout (over 470 voted). The count was interesting, as although there were two teams in contention, in a vote of proportional representation, voters could add or delete names to the list as they wished, provided that they did not exceed the maximum number of names on the list. Each card had to be counted, and discarded if spoiled, or read and the names written by two invigilators, counting the votes for each name. I didn’t come last, as there were some names in the lists that were certainly not wanted to be elected by the voters. I was an unknown quantity, but missed the cut anyway. In the event, the other team won, maybe next time.
The Clerk of the commune is a real card, as I sometime get a lesson in French from him. When younger he spent several years in the USA, and as far as we know speaks good English but as a matter of principle, speaks to us only in French.
As a result of his lesson one day, I realised the importance of the rules of getting the vowels sounds precisely correct. It can mean the difference between splitting wood and thawing it. That is correct - I have no lisp! The verbs “Fendre” – to split and “Fondre” - to thaw, sound completely different. Try it yourself. Open your mouth with the lips halfway apart and hum “aaaaahn”, but mostly through the nose. That approximates the sound for “fendre”. Now do the same again this time as you hum, start to close your lips, to the point where your mouth doesn’t quite close. That makes the “ooooohn” sound. Alternate the movement of your lips from wide open to nearly closed and hear the differences. Now say the words “Fin” (wide open), “Fend” (half open), “Fond” (not quite closed) in French of course without saying the endings. All the sounds should be nasal, that is to say coming from the nose. The mouth is merely a sounding box for the emerging sound. These three words should sound distinctly different.
I hope the points I have illustrated here are of some small benefit. So whether you are just a visitor or debating a long and fruitful time in France, it is worth thinking on how you mean to approach the language, whether as a means to “getting by”, or a vital method of communication. Remember there are over 3000 French words that are the same in meaning to those in English except for the pronunciation of course. All you need to do is get to know some of them, but be careful of the false friends, les faux amis. To be sensitive is “être sensible”.
Next time – Le Loto et des autres choses.