My level of French is actually quite good although I beat myself up about it just about daily. I’m perfectly capable of interacting in any social situation and getting my point across. I can go to any store, office, agency and take care of whatever needs to be done. I can talk about my ideas and dreams and recount what happened yesterday at an advanced level. Sure, I make mistakes, but my level at this point is advanced. What do I need to do to bridge the barrier to fluency? Well, I’d have to watch a lot more TV, find some friends and MAKE TOM SPEAK ONLY IN FRENCH. But I digress…
So while I understand 95% of what’s going on, there are some exceptions to this:
- Accents: Foreign, regional, whatever. If you have a heavy accent, I’ll be lost.
- Mumblers (old people): I dread elevator conversations with the over 70 crowd in my building. I don’t know if it’s due to the lack of dentures that fit or what, but all the senior citizens here seem to mumble, look down when they’re talking and use weird phrasing/expressions that just leave me lost. Some even do all three of these things at the same time to make our conversations extra amusing — for me. Not for them.
- Complicated subject matter: Literary discussions with lots of figurative, complicated ideas and expressions I don’t know. Anything detailed on French policies I leave to Tom. Like specific healthcare reimbursement questions or income tax inquiries.
- TV: Sometimes it’s just too fast with too much slang. And people talking over each other is the worst. Shows like Law & Order? Forget it. Wayyy too complex.
So what do I do when I don’t understand?:
- OPTION 1: My first instinct is to say a simple “Sorry?” or “Can you please repeat what you said?” (in French of course). The person always repeats what they’ve said and at this point there are two options:
1) Success. You’ve understood the second time around. This is the preferable option and a major relief.
2) Failure. You can ask them to repeat it again. Hopefully on the second repeat they rephrase or speak more slowly (not always the case) and you understand. I mean come on, you hear my accent. Help a girl out!
Diane in 2009: On that second repeat I’d just say “Sorry can you please repeat what you just said?” still panicking and nervous.
Diane in 2010: On that second repeat, I’d make an excuse to explain my lack of comprehension and say “Sorry I am deaf. Hear the accent? Could you please repeat yourself?” And you think I’m joking.
Diane now: On that second repeat (thank God this happens rarely), I say something more natural like “Forgive me. I feel like a moron but I have absolutely no clue what you just said.” And laugh. At this point, the person sees I can clearly speak French and will say it a different way. Every time I’ve done this, the person seems to feel for me and I almost always learn a new word or expression.
But at this point, if you’re like Diane in 2010 and you still haven’t understood, you feel like a moron and can either run away and hide for the rest of your life or just smile and nod.
- OPTION 2: The smile and nod. This works most of the time even if the answer is wrong. This is a great one for when you don’t know the person and are sure you won’t see him or her again.
Example of this working: “Do you want your receipt in the bag?” Smile and nod. No harm done.
Example of this working, but as the wrong answer: “Does this train go to Dijon?” You have no idea if the train goes to Dijon nor do you know what was said. Smile and nod…
Example of this failing miserably: The smile and nod won’t work if someone asks you “Are you some kind of moron?” Yes. Yes, I am. Smile and nod…The one thing I have going for me is my accent. While I do have one, it’s not a dead giveaway that I’m American since I can pronounce the French “r.” I’ve been told my accent is “good” and doesn’t interfere with comprehension or getting my point across. So great, at least when I make a moron out of myself, I can be understood while doing so.
Here are some examples of my brilliant French language skills at work:By brilliant I mean totally embarrassing:
- At puppy school, we were checking in and the employee asked me what instructor led our group. I didn’t know our instructor’s name, so I meant to say the bald man, which is chauve in French. Une chauve-souris is a bat. It’s simple really, souris is a mouse. So bald mouse. Makes sense? Well, genius me made the mistake of saying “Our instructor is that bat man.” I said chauve-souris instead of just chauve. Why? Beats me. And that was an easy one! The guy I was talking to was too polite to correct me. Hopefully he got what I meant.
- Don’t confuse baisser and baiser. The first means “to lower” as in lower the volume or lower something onto the ground. The second is vulgar and means something that starts with “f” and rhymes with duck. The “s” sound in baisser is pronounced like an “s” but in baiser, the single “s” is pronounced like a “z.” Don’t forget that.