So, this evening, watching French TV with an American author being interviewed, and the rather weird experience of them doing that thing where they have a translated voice speaking over the top, so the English was just odd sounds in the background and I ended up listening to the French. I may voluntarily choose the museum audio guide and map in French, but this was just odd! (Nearly as odd as reading a novel by an English author set in late 1930’s Germany, translated into French and full of German acronyms, but that’s another story). What I actually found really interesting was the interaction between him and the other people on the programme (there was a presenter and three other authors, all Francophone), because he obviously had a translator in an earpiece, but with a time delay, and so he couldn’t really join in with a quick comment on anything, because by the time he understood what was happening the moment had already passed!
The other TV moment that made me reflect this week was the news a couple of days ago, where somebody had found two US politicians/ political commentators (one for each side, obviously!) who spoke enough French to be able to talk about the budget crisis. The woman in particular had the tendency to litter her French with American words (the one that stuck out was ‘White House’, since the French call it ‘La Maison blanche’, but there were others too), not, I suspect, because she didn’t speak good enough French to use equivalents, but because for her the US Senate was not at all the same thing as the ‘Sénat’. And of course, for the majority of people watching, that wouldn’t be a problem at all, because everyone knows what the White House is. It just struck me as interesting because it was more evidence of something that I am increasingly coming to realise, that there is no such thing as monolingualism, but that everyone speaks their own kind of dialect which has more or less of a mixture of languages in it. Even the way that I pronounce my name when I introduce myself to someone can vary, and forms part of a whole cultural web that I spin around myself.
Of course, at work it’s quite funny because we spend 90% of the time speaking in French, but reading and writing in English. I’ve reached the point where I don’t really think about what language I’m working in (often the first sign I actually notice is that my spell check isn’t happy, or that Auto Correct has gone a bit wild…), and I think it’s the same for the others too: a lot of our documents include a bit of a mixture, as well as delightful cross-cultural Franglais like the column in one of our spreadsheets where we note that a chauffeur has been ‘booké’. I have the occasional mad moment where I have to evaluate how to pronounce ‘Hello’ (or ‘Hallo’) when answering the phone, betting on who exactly will be calling, and today I followed the instructions (in French) for a voicemail that I left in English.
In fact, it seems to be my English that is being invaded by French rather than vice versa: faced with having to demand contribution to the insurance ‘franchise’, I was forced to Google ‘name for when you have to pay a bit towards a repair and the insurance pays the rest’ (it’s the excess, I know!). Oh, and I can no longer spell either ‘apartment’ (have developed a tendency to double ‘p’) or address (single ‘d’).
And so my conclusions? Well, as I always thought, the French that we learn in England isn’t the French spoken by French people, not only in terms of grammar (because yes, I have completely lost the habit of using a negative ‘ne’, when writing as well as speaking), but also in its purity. I’m far more likely to describe a place as ‘animé’ whereas my bosses would say it was ‘busy’, to talk about a ‘réservation’ rather than a ‘booking’ and to say that it was ‘super’ or ‘fantastique’ rather than ‘top’. So if I pick up their habits, I may in fact end up speaking more Anglicised French than when I left… Will the Oxford examiners believe that this is ‘real French as spoken by the French’? Is that even what they want?!