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Switching to French (is Trickier Than It Seems)

Monoprix ad mixing French and English (with complete disregard for proper English pronunciation…)

I’m French but I rarely get the chance to speak French—at least not in Canada or when I travel.

I read and write in French when I work because after all, that’s what an English-to-French translator is paid for. Except the assignments per se, business is conducted in English. At home, we speak English and occasionally Mandarin. Mark has books in French but reading them to him is like an extension of my job since every two seconds, he asks me what it means. Once in a while, I meet a French speaker in Ottawa but it often takes a few minutes before we realize we both speak French and can switch to this language instead of chatting in English.

The only people I speak French with are my mom, when I call her (which isn’t that often) and a couple of French friends who do speak French at home because their spouse is French too. My friends who, like me, married someone who doesn’t speak French invariably switch to English at some point in the conversation. It sounds strange, yet it makes sense when you’re talking about something—a random anecdote, a conversation at work—that happened in English. Anything can be translated but it takes a conscious effort to do so. Languages reflect a cultural reality—I can use a French expression for “lunch box” but it won’t describe this North American tradition as well. When I use the words “lunch box” with a friend who lives in Canada, they know immediately what’s I’m referring to.

I used to miss speaking French. I remember how exhausted I felt at the end of the day, my brain working hard to decipher English and to find an acceptable way to put words on my thoughts. I remember how excited I was when I was hearing French on TV or when I was meeting another French speaker. I remember how frustrating it was to not be able to express myself fully—arguing in a foreign language is awful, for instance, I used to cry because it was easier.

I think I’m bilingual now (is there a real test for that?) so I can think, dream and converse in a few languages without much effort. The downside is, when I go back to France, I sound… well, kind of foreign. Technically, at work, I translate documents into Canadian French—so no “email” but “courriel,” no “shopping” but “magasinage,” etc. A few words made their way into my vocabulary and I can’t get rid of them. I don’t have a Quebec accent, though!

I sound foreign to French in France because I’m used to “standard French,” i.e. clear and straightforward French. There are many flavours of French spoken in Canada and when I translate, I try to reach as many French speakers as possible. The same logic applies when I talk to another French speaker in Canada. The person may be Lebanese, Haitian, Congolese, Quebecois, Franco-Ontarian, etc. It would be strange to use typical Parisian French slang.

In France, it took me a couple of days to stop prefacing interactions with “ça va?” since my brain insisted on translating the usual “How are YOU today?” you hear so often in North America. I still say “sorry” instead of “pardon”—note to self, I don’t need to be sorry for anything in France, I can just bump into people and jump the queue without any apology.

I also find it hard to pronounce the many English loanwords with a French accent—manager, deal, summer, all the brand names, etc.

It doesn’t help that French people are not very flexible with their language. They are quick to point out accents (even local ones I can barely notice) and correct each other’s grammar. Only in France you can have an entire dinner argument over the proper use of a preposition or the correct gender of a rare word!

Sign corrected by a grammar nazi (the original version was actually correct), place de la Bourse, Nantes

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