High school French lives on

Posted by Christopher Wink on Oct 20, 2008 in Travel Tips |

Enjoying chocolate chaud et un sandwich at a cafe near Notre Dame on Oct. 13, 2008.

Enjoying chocolate chaud et un sandwich at a cafe near Notre Dame on Oct. 13, 2008.

We’re in Zurich, roughly the end of a solid week of French-speaking cities - from Brussels, Belgium to Paris and Lyon France.

Roughly a fifth of Switzerland speaks French, but here in Zurich German - the country’s largest national language - is king. A local told me we’d be better off with English than French in this city. Just fine, because, my French is limited.

See… Je parler un peu en francaise.

While in France, Paris to be more precise, We Don’t Speak the Language may be a bit of a misnomer. A little.

I took three years of French in high school five years ago. Fluency isn’t exactly something I can boast. I did well enough, but enjoyed it more than my casual teenage boy academic effort suggested then. My international travel experiences - Japan, Ghana, China, Italy - always featured native tongues on which I had no background knowledge. So, first in Brussels - where French is the predominant language - now in Paris, again in Lyon and even in Switzerland, I am positively giddy about recalling something I learned years ago.

Going to France - Paris to be more precise - and using the language is the penultimate of a French student’s career. Like Rome for those who study Latin, or Tokyo for Japanese or 5th Street in North Philadelphia for Spanish students.

A lot of it is coming back. Yeah, I can conjugate the verb avoir. Wherever you may be, thank you Mme. Elvidge! But - as Sean might quicky point out - sometimes it’s less than pretty. A second grade vocabulary can only get you so far in negotiations and, even after a few tries, I still haven’t navigated an entire cafe experience without at least a slight misunderstanding. C’est laid ou c’est lait? Is it ugly or is it milk? My accent and comprehension aren’t quite there, but I am a little stunned how much came back and how often Parisians managed even a vague understanding of what it is I am babbling about.

Though I struggle mightily in understanding the echoy announcements in train stations - which often seem crucial.

So what language did you dabble in? If you haven’t, give it a go - seriously - and force yourself into using it. Then take a trip and stumble through it.

Once in Brussels and again here in Paris, after saying I was from the United States - Je viens des Etats-Unis (sic) - I was approached with some Spanish. Many think that with our growing Hispanic population we ought to know some of that tongue, so why don’t we?

I say we all pick up a little Spanish and next time you are on your Carribean getaway or in another of the many Spanish-speaking countries in this world you use it. I am stunned how much easier it seems to retain new words - and remember what I already learned - when I have to. You might be too.

Could one get by without French here? Yes. Lots of people do. Some cafes publicize English speaking-staff. Some ticket agents will speak English themselves. Just like you can go to your Carribiean resort and English will be there. It is always there. Everywhere there’s a Lonely Planet guidebook. But you will miss out on your own adventure.

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Ian Fulguirinas
Oct 21, 2008 at 8:39 am

Yeah, half the fun of my trip seems to be experiencing negotiations in foreign languages. Well, I negotiate in English, with gestures, pictures and written down numbers, and they negotiate in their language(s) of choice, with gestures, pictures and written down numbers.

Eastern Europe is so much harder. All the Latin based language, like French and Italian, are similar enough to English so I can figure out lots of things by looking at them (it also helps I had to do 2 years of French in high school). And Dutch…I asked a Dutch guy a question, he didn’t know English but he got what I was asking, replied in Dutch and apart from a word here and there, because he was speaking slowly, I could understand most of it. It was trippy.

But these Slavic languages are just on another level again. I’m getting the hang of certain words when they’re written, like the difference between departure and arrival (and I don’t need to tell you why that’s useful!), and some spoken words, which are generically Slavic, like Dobra means ok, or good. I’ve started using that a lot in supermarkets etc when they tell me the price of things (not that I understand, I’ve already worked it out in my head).

But I agree, language barriers are a fun part of any overseas adventures, because overcoming them is a real accomplishment.

Oct 21, 2008 at 9:40 am

Yes, you would be better off speaking English here than French. No one speaks French here. It is Swiss German, German or English, and even then, I think I get better reception when I speak English as opposed to German (Hochdeutsch). The Swiss seem to have preferential treatment in this order - Swiss German, English, Hochdeutsch..

Good luck and enjoy Zurich. We have been living here for 6 months now and enjoy it!

Paris Cafe « My Life To-Do List
Nov 26, 2008 at 12:26 am

[...] since I studied French in high school, I was indoctrinated into believing I had to make it to [...]



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