(Im)perfectly bilingual but perfectly intelligible

Would you say you are bilingual? Does it simply mean you can speak two languages, or that you are fluent in both? Annaliza Davis looks at her own experience of language learning and considers what is involved in being fluent

WHEN we moved to France in 2004, my French was decidedly rusty. I had an A-level and a year of university French but then had done nothing with it for 10 years, which is a familiar situation for many expats here.

Many people arrive able to handle everyday conversations at the supermarket and can even handle dealing with utility companies or the notaire as long as they speak clearly - but maintaining lengthy or intricate French conversations can be terribly tiring at first. I spent much of my first three years here utterly exhausted by the effort needed to concentrate on conversations.

That’s not what we were taught at school…

One of the biggest surprises is the gulf between what we learned in the classroom and the phrases we hear when living in France, particularly small talk about the weather.

No French person I know says “il pleut”. They use expressions like “Dis-donc, ça tombe, hein?”

And instead of the very clear “il fait du vent”, it’s “Qu’est-ce que ça souffle!” – rather as British people would not really say to each other “it is windy”, but probably “wow, it’s blowing a gale out there!”.

You probably also had fun matching the slur of sounds that sounded like “shaypa”, to the familiar phrase, “je ne sais pas”. None of this is exclusive to the French, of course, but we know the shortcuts and abbreviations in our own language; it takes time to collect them in a second language, and it begins in childhood.

All about the children

If you have children educated here from earliest infancy, it is a continual learning process. We speak English at home, so phrases such as “Mum, can I have a pomme?” or “I can’t find my cahier” are commonplace.

We only notice it when English speaking visitors remark on it. For example, my son was only three when he asked his uncle, “Are you the brother of my mum?” which my brother found rather quaint. (An English speaker would naturally have asked “Are you my mum’s brother?” in case you are wondering.)

Adults who emigrate from the UK to France have usually learned French from a textbook, whereas our children growing up here learn French from their teachers and classmates.

This meant that when my youngest learnt about constructing negative phrases in French ( “I don’t want” is “je ne veux pas” and so on), he was utterly confused. In everyday speech, most French people drop the “ne”. He had spent his young life hearing “je sais pas” and “je veux pas” and was highly sceptical that the “ne” was truly French.

What is “bilingual”?

After nearly 12 years here, I can comfortably interview French people for magazine articles and I do a lot of professional translation work, but I would still hesitate to describe myself as “fluent”. A French friend tells me this is because I like to discuss quite complex issues and get annoyed if I lack the precise vocabulary, implying, in other words, that if I were less ambitious in my subject-matter, I’d happily consider myself bilingual.

This seems a cop-out. To me, being fluent means feeling as comfortable in a language as you would in your mother tongue and I still have not reached that stage.

If you watch a French crime drama on television, do you understand all the nuances and slang terms? Could you go to the local theatre and follow a three-hour play? I’m not confident I could.

More than words

As you will certainly be aware if you live here, it is not only about the words. You can have an extensive vocabulary and perfect grammar and not understand the accent or speed of the speech.

One very intelligent British man I once interviewed told me he had worked in France for eight years before realising that the French expression for “up-and-down” was in fact four separate words: “en dents de scie”; he had only ever heard this as one word (“endendesi”).

Likewise, the French word “normalement”, which does not mean “normally, usually” at all.

Here in Brittany, you will hear phrases like, “She”ll be here at midday, normalement,” or “It will cost around €50, normalement.”

Gradually, you realise that “normalement” really means “all being well”, or, in reality, “probably not” (“It will cost around €50… probably not”).

Then you have all the cultural references you naturally acquire as you grow up in any given country.

You are not aware until you move away how frequently your interaction with others includes references to old TV programmes, songs from 20 years ago or adverts from your childhood.

“He looked like a right Steptoe” or “what’s with the Val Doonican jumper?” simply don’t transfer… (Benny Hill, on the other hand, is inexplicably popular and can be referred to, should you wish).

Neither one nor the other

Have you lived here several years? How often do you have the gaping goldfish moment where you realise you have completely forgotten an English word or expression?

Recently, someone asked what we say in English for a “trou de mémoire” and, with an admirable flair for irony, my brain froze. (We do not say “a hole in my memory”, we say “my mind’s gone blank”, just in case you are suffering from the same effect).

Many’s the time a word disappears from my brain when needed.

My long-suffering mum is used to calls such as: “Mum, what do you call that transparent paper that you wrap around flowers?” “What, cellophane?” “Brilliant, thanks!”

Our children frequently use English words with a French construction; yours might well do the same.

Instead of “if you don’t mind”, our boys tend to say, “if that doesn’t mind” (closer to the French, “si cela ne te dérange pas”). Or, when asking questions, “do you know who is the President?” (rather than “do you know who the President is?”).

It is very common to hear people saying “oui, oui” on an in-breath, which you do not register until an English friend points out to you that you say yes on an in-breath when speaking English, and that this is peculiar.

Are you bilingual?

So, back to the question: are you bilingual? Are you fluent? Perhaps one test is whether you can even speak English fluently any more.

Do you find yourself hesitating when speaking English because a French word has popped into your head and you cannot recall the English equivalent? Do you find it hard to replace phrases like “n’importe quoi” and “ça marche”?

Do you find yourself seasoning English conversations with regular sprinklings of French words because they have come to mind more naturally?

If so, celebrate your status as someone whose French is better than that of a holiday-maker, to the point that it has infiltrated your own language and created little pockets of France amidst your English vocabulary.

Outsiders might consider you perfectly fluent but you know better: you are imperfectly bilingual, and ce n’est pas rien!

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