By Thane Peterson By the time you read this, I should be in Paris, tanned from watching the French Open tennis tournament, and pleasantly relaxed after stuffing myself with foie gras and Sauternes. With the dollar so strong, I expect that a lot of other people are planning travel to France or the French-speaking parts of Canada this summer, so I thought I'd share some thoughts on the pitfalls of speaking French.
When you travel to any foreign country and don't speak the language, there are basically three approaches you can take. The first is to refuse to speak anything but English. The trouble with this is that you may end up only talking to waiters, hotel personnel, and English teachers -- perhaps not the best recipe for an exciting vacation.
The radical approach is to refuse to speak a word of English, even if you barely know the local language. This will force you to learn the basics quickly if you want to say anything at all, but it's a tough discipline to maintain.
The middle course -- the one most people choose -- is to speak as much of the language as you can remember from high school and phrase books. The theory here is that local people will appreciate any attempt to speak their language. But it also can provoke icy disdain from any waiter who speaks more pidgin English that you speak pidgin French.
I recommend the middle approach, but with a few caveats -- especially when you're visiting France. French is full of what are known as faux amis, or false friends. These are words whose meanings you think you know because there is a similar word in English. But, of course, it's a trap because the word really means something horribly embarrassing in French. Perhaps the classic false friend in French is the word baiser. As a noun, this is an innocent -- even
sweet -- word that means a kiss, or a buss. But if you happen to use it as a verb, it becomes a vulgar term for the sex act -- translated into English, it would start with the letter "f."
DOUGHNUT SOLIDARITY. There are lots of other, less famous, false friends in French that can be just as treacherous. I once knew an English-speaking Canadian woman who, having diligently studied French for three-quarters of her existence, announced at a dinner party that she preferred her bread sans preservatifs, thinking this meant "without preservatives." Unfortunately for her, preservatif is French for condom. (I can't resist mentioning perhaps the most famous betrayal ever by a false friend -- this time in German. Remember when President Kennedy showed his solidarity with the besieged citizens of Berlin by uttering the stirring words, "Ich bin ein Berliner" or "I am a Berliner"? Well, in German a Berliner is also a doughnut.)
If you don't know anything about the language, I strongly recommend against simply repeating bits of French you've heard on TV or in the movies. You're very unlikely to get good service in a restaurant, for example, if you snap your fingers and yell, "Garçon, garçon." I've actually heard American tourists do this, apparently unaware that garçon means "boy" in French. The practice of calling waiters that, if it was ever common in France, dates back to an era considerably less egalitarian than ours today.
Also, if you succeed in speaking a little French, don't let the glory of it go to your head. One time, one of my bosses took me out to lunch at a French restaurant in New York and I made a big show of debating the choice of a wine in French with the waiter. My pretensions were deflated when it came time for me to taste the Burgundy we had chosen and the waiter whispered in my ear (kindly, not loud enough for my boss to hear), "Would Monsieur care to remove his chewing gum before he tastes the wine?"
GAS CRISIS. Which brings us to the subject of all the English false friends in the French language. Contrary to what the Académie Française, the official guardian of the French language, would have you believe, a lot of English words have crept into French. The difficulty here is that the English word is pronounced as if it were French. Le chewing gum is a case in point. In France, if you want the sales clerk to understand what you mean, you'd best pronounce it "le shoeing gome." Le shampooing is another example. It means shampoo in French but, as I discovered the first time I tired to buy some, it isn't pronounced shampooing in French. Better say something like shom (rhymes with bomb) poing (pronounced a little like po-hang) if you want to end up with the right product. On second thought, if you need any shampoo, it might be better to just point.
The other difficulty with English false friends is that there are different ones in French French and French-Canadian French. In Quebec, for instance, many people still say fin de semaine instead of le weekend, as they do in France. And in French-Canadian slang, mon chum means "my boyfriend" and ma blonde means my girlfriend. However, if you're a Parisian restaurant and say something like, "Je vous present mon chum," it's doubtful many people will understand that you're introducing your boyfriend.
Even once you start to get pretty fluent in French, I've found that it's easy to make a fool of yourself if you forget to pay very close attention to the context of what's being said. I learned this lesson when I went off for a week of skiing in the Jura Mountains in the east of France with my French girlfriend and numerous members of a family of our acquaintance. Like any typical teenager, the family's 14-year-old daughter, Dorothée (pronounced door-o-tay), kept saying funny and mildly inappropriate things, and her mother kept responding, "Arrete, Dorothée," which means, "Stop, Dorothée." I, however, heard this as arrete de roter, which is French for "stop belching." It happened so often that I eventually asked the mother if her daughter really had a problem with gas or was just belching all the time to be annoying.
"She does that?" the mother asked with alarm, clearly astonished that any daughter of hers might be doing anything so impolite. Happily, the misunderstanding was cleared up before the daughter was given an unmerited scolding.
TALK OF THE TOWN. My final piece of advice, no matter what foreign country you happen to travel to, is not to assume everyone is talking about you. Perhaps because few Americans speak any foreign language fluently, it's common for us to hear some snippet overseas and assume we're being insulted. Why this is, I don't know, but it can have disastrous consequences.
I once was having dinner at a restaurant in Geneva with two Swiss women I had met the month before skiing in France. We talked on and on about all sorts of inconsequential things in French and I was so engrossed I barely noticed when the American family dining at the next table got up and headed for the door. You can imagine my astonishment, when the husband, a regular-looking guy in his forties, turned around, came back to our table, and addressed himself to one of the women I was dining with.
"Do you speak English?" he asked, and she responded that she did.
"Good," he said. "Because we heard what you said about the United States, and we think you're a b---- [using a vulgar word for a female dog]."
Now, I'll never know what this man thought he heard because he ran off before I recovered enough to ask. But I went over our conversation a hundred times afterwards, and neither I nor the two women had said anything that could possibly offend anyone. He also clearly had no idea I was an American. The man had simply misunderstood something. The lesson here is something my great grandmother used to say: "Don't worry about what people might be saying about you. Chances are, they aren't talking about you at all." And that holds true in any language. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online