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Broken English

Broken French in Ottawa, Spring 2011

For some reason, I don’t speak English with a typical French accent—but I can imitate it if needed. I don’t really know what I sound like in English. Better than in Spanish, I hope. Most people can probably hear my accent when I talk but they can rarely tell where I’m from.

I don’t feel as self-conscious about my English as I used to be, probably because I’m fluent now. Besides, I spend my days editing, reviewing, writing and translating documents in both official languages. Obviously, my English is good enough for that.

That said, there are mistakes I keep on making, no matter how many times I catch myself and correct them.

Take the word “jeans” for instance. I still catch myself saying “my jean is…”, using the singular, like French do. On a side note, Feng used to find the way I used to pronounce American brands hilarious: “Nikeuh”, “”LEH-vees”… But I get my revenge when he says “DanONE” for “Danone”!

So what other tricky words? “Neighbourhood”. For the life of me, I can never spell it right, and I manage to write it differently every single time. And I’m not even remotely dyslexic (which, ironically, it’s another hard-to-spell word). “Connection/connexion”, I can never remember which one is the French spelling and which one is the English one. Same goes with “address/adresse”, although this one is a bit easier. On the other side, I have no problem writing “anaesthetized” or “conscientious”—go figure! Note that I’m still human, I can’t write “Czechoslovakia” without spell-check.

I also suck at spelling out loud in English and I blame it on the fact I’ve never learned the language formally. Spelling the alphabet is presumably one of the first things English as a second language students learn but I skipped that stage. Even before I came to Canada, “z” was “zed” to me because in French, it’s “zed” too. I can never pronounce “g” and “j” right. I know one is “jee” and the other is “jai” but in French, it’s the opposite and I always get mixed up. “It’s not the end of world,” you are probably thinking. Well, maybe not but when your full name is “Juliette Giannesini” it certainly is an issue. When receptionists look for my name in the system and can’t find it, I tell them to check under “Guliette Jiannesini” just in case. And now, you know why I picked a three-letter Chinese nickname—it saves me the torture of spelling it. Too bad I can’t book appointments under “Zhu”!

Prepositions sometimes still confuse me. Do you “look at the window”, “look by the window”, “look out the window”, “look out at the window”, “look through the window”? I hate these little words, “at”, “to”, “by” etc., especially in English, because they can totally change the meaning of a word, such as “to work/to work out”, “to pick up/to pick on someone”. But it’s the same in French—I remember, my students had a lot of issues with prepositions and I often resorted to saying “it’s idiomatic” to those who complained about it.

I finally adopted the Canadian English spelling and it now feels more natural but it confused me for a long time. I mean, aren’t “color” and “colour” the same thing? Can’t you guys agree on the spelling once and for all? That may actually be the origin of my trauma spelling “neighbourhood”!

I no longer speak franglais but because I’m living in Ottawa and work in both in English and in French, I’m used to quickly switch between one language and the other, not to mention we sometimes speak Mandarin at home. A side of my brain contains a French dictionary and the other one an English dictionary. Even the punctuation changes. See, in English there is no space before a colon but in French there is one. In both Quebec French and English, there is no space before a question mark or an exclamation mark but in Parisian French, there is one. And so on…

Welcome to my world. Most of the time, I don’t even know which language I’m thinking in. Did I even write that article in English?

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