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Language howlers and the 'hearing' block

Where a cute accent can lead to grave misunderstandings

From being able to order a kilo of tomatoes to achieving some level of fluency in French has been a hard road. But apparently for those early retirees who move to France and then return to the UK within three years, the main reasons cited are either language difficulties, or finding their pensions don't stretch far enough.

If you are used to feeling you communicate quite well, being greeted with a furrowed brow too often is dispiriting.

I have a theory that we all block out our hearing and understanding the moment we register our native tongue spoken with a strange accent. It is not rudeness, it is fear of not being able to understand or respond.

You will recognise well the furrowed brow if you live in France and your French is less than perfect. How often have you been sure the vocabulary was right, the conjugation accurate and the grammar spot on, only to be greeted with ‘Pardon?’ or even worse, the dreaded ‘Comment?’.

Accent is the problem. Think about how difficult it is to understand English if all the emphasis is on the wrong syllables, the accent is wrong and the inflections are in the opposite direction. Think about the difficulties pronouncing Loughborough or Leicester!

How often has my friend Danielle reminded me that generally in English the emphasis is on the first syllable and in French it is the opposite. It's a bit like the ‘cool’ English speaker who makes all sentences sound like questions because the inflection goes up at the end… see the problem?

So I struggle with my accent. Then there's the issue of the local accent in our area where the nasal twang turns ‘le pain’ into ‘le pin’, ‘très bien’ into ´très bin’ and ‘le vent’ into ‘le vin’. The latter led us into difficulties declining a glass of wine at nine in the morning when actually we were being questioned about the effect of last night’s high winds.

We asked a friend 10 years ago what we could say as a greeting at the end of the year as he insisted that ‘Happy New Year’ couldn't possibly be spoken until January 1. ‘Bon bout de l’an’ was what I now believe he advised for New Year's Eve. What I heard then was ‘Bon boudin’ and I swept round the village saying it until Jacques asked me why I was wishing people a ‘Happy sausage’.

When we ran out of wood in the first winter my husband sought logs explaining to people that his wife was frigid when he meant I was feeling cold – I hope this was a genuine mistake!

It seems we've told people often that we leave the dogs at the caterpillars (la chenille) rather than the kennels (le chenil)…

At choir, we've struggled with expectations of what men were to wear when ‘noeud papillon’ was suggested…

I've told builders their suggestion was not to my gout (la goutte) instead of my taste (le gout)…

And heaven only knows what I may have told the doctor was wrong with me or what I hoped he could provide…

And that’s all before we face the dreadful problem of ‘queue’ and ‘cul’!

I'm told that more retired women speak French than do men and that men often leave the issues of communication to their wives. Thank goodness my husband doesn't fall into this category but if this is generally so then come on boys, pull yourselves together, you're going to be in big trouble in hospital when asked about your basic needs! 

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