The other night at dinner, I asked a friend to repeat something he’d just said.
“He was speaking too fast for you maybe,” said my friend Anne. “We speak fast. Especially in Paris.”
My friend didn’t speak too fast. I simply didn’t catch some of the references he’d made. It’s like that sometimes when you’re with people who’ve grown up in another culture than yours. You can follow the meaning of the words, but you need the context to comprehend the point of the story.
“We do speak fast,” Anne repeated, as if to reassure herself of her statement.
That’s true, but everyone speaks quickly in his native language. The way she said it though, it was if this were a point of pride. As if it were important to talk so quickly that someone who’s good in the language but isn’t a native speaker might have trouble keeping up.
Language is about communication, of course. But for someone speaking a language not his own, you can occasionally find yourself part of a petty power game of who knows what and who doesn’t, of who gets the meaning and who’s left on the outside. I don’t think Anne was playing a game; she’s too warm and generous. I do think, however, that she was simply reveling in her love of her own language, as the French do, wishing to demonstrate how superior it is to other languages. (Linguists insist that all languages are equal – but to the French all other languages but French are equal to one another.)
As proud as they are of French, the French do love to incorporate English phrases or words into conversation. Anne herself does this in her charming fashion, such as when she once welcomed me on my return to Paris after a few months home in New York with a hug, saying “Welcome in Paris.”
I thanked her, but I couldn’t resist adding, “To. Welcome to Paris.”
I explained that the French preposition “à” did not mean “to” in English here, and I left it at that. Maybe I was making up for the constant language correction I receive, though more likely I was doing as the French do, that is, immediately correcting something that sounds wrong, only this time in English.
I don’t know how or why certain English phrases resonate with the French. French everyday speech has a lot of English already, of course, taken mainly from business. Marketing, design, coach, job, are all common in French now, to name just four out of hundreds of borrowed English words and phrases.
I hear certain other phrases often. One is “Let’s go.” It’s used in place of any one of several widely spoken French forms, so I don’t really see why “let’s go” has crept into use. Still, it’s amusing to hear it à la française, with the “o” in “go” pronounced as “goh.”
Another one is the odd, “The place to be.” This isn’t really said with any sort of regularity in English, but it’s become a phrase that’s trotted out in France when you refer to a certain event or place that’s the talk of the town.
A friend of mine actually used it the other day, referring to a coming dinner, and she gave me a sly look as she said it. I don’t know quite what she meant by that look, especially since what she said was, “It’s the place to be, n’est-ce pas?” I could only smile in response.
My French friends love to use English phrases around me, and why not? English of all sorts bombards them from everywhere, and to speak English is to have an international outlook. To speak English well, however, is a stretch for many people here, since most foreign speakers of English speak at best a form of rudimentary English that might be called international demotic. (At the same time, I’m usually pleasantly shocked to hear an American speaking French with any degree of fluency.)
Because English is the language of international communication, and because that international communication is usually spoken by people who know just enough to get by, the complexity and grandeur of English, its wealth of expression, vocabulary and nuance, are generally lost on most non-native English speakers. (Unfortunately, today these riches are also lost on a good many native English speakers.)
The subtle complexity of most languages is lost on people who didn’t grow up speaking them. I’ll never be 100% fluent in French, since I didn’t grow up speaking the language, but I get by pretty well, and I’ve come to understand a fair share of argotic expressions and slang, which is as important as knowing the vocabulary of literature. When I watch certain French TV series, I write down expressions or words that I don’t know, to remember them. Not that I’m likely to use them, but I want to be aware of them – you never know when certain terms will pop up in conversation.
Despite its borrowings from English (to the regret of French-language purists), the French still often refer to “la richesse de la langue française,” after someone puns or jokes or makes note of a grammatical rule, as if French is the only language in the world in which you find wordplay, subtlety of expression, and an ability to express the profoundest thought.
I realize this comes from an innate French sense of cultural superiority, which can be tied to a fear of losing relevance. It’s also easy to believe here, since France is a country where ideas are paramount. It’s so much easier to have faith in an idea rather than confront a reality at odds with that idea.
At the same time, I admire a country where language is so important. Native English speakers take English for granted. The French don’t take their language for granted; they nurture it. They even try to control it – France is, after all, a country where it’s important to follow rules – but language cannot be controlled, even by the fussy linguistic solons of the Académie Française. They recently decried the feminization of the language, saying it poses a mortal danger to the French language. They were protesting recent tendencies to refer to groups of people by both genders instead of the neutral or masculine one, for example writing out the word for students as “étudiant.e.s” or “étudiant-e-s.” This is supposed to allow for a diversity of genders, with words that were usually masculine or neutral now also taking feminine forms to be inclusive. It’s clunky, and no one knows if it will hold, but it has alarmed the language alarmists.
More broadly, and celebratory, there’s a widely noted international week of the French language every year. That’s when you’re likely to come across hopeful articles that declare that French will soon become one of the most-spoken languages in the world, surpassing at least the 10 or so other languages that more people currently speak.
Whether that happens won’t change the French attitude toward French as spoken by people not born in France. My friends will often ask me if I know the meaning of a certain phrase, and then go on to explain it to me. I don’t mind. It keeps me on my toes, which is what I want. In any event, I’ll always be a person whose comprehension in French will always be just slightly below full, no matter how good my French gets. That doesn’t stop me from appreciating and enjoying the language. I’m at home in French, as much as a foreigner can be, and I’ll always be someone who occasionally needs context explained. People may speak quickly, but I can usually follow what’s being said, and most people in France want you to understand what they’re saying, even if they also feel you’ll never truly understand it, not being French and all.
The French attitude toward French is decidedly nationalistic, even beyond pride in the mother tongue. Bookstores assign different sections to French-language works that are written by French-speaking authors outside of France (they’re placed in a Francophone Siberia). As if to say that, while it’s wonderful that these writers are expressing themselves in French, it’s equally important to make sure that everyone realizes they’re still not actually French, regardless of their use of a language possessing such “richesse.” Colonialism is still alive, at least concerning la richesse de la langue française.