“Okay, so you’re going to ask for trois…”
“…s’il vous plaît.”
“Never mind, I’ll say the last part. Hey, wait for your turn!”
Buying bread is a French rite of passage for kids. At home, I let Mark buy a cake pop at Starbucks a few times so that he’ll practise his social skills. I wanted to do the same thing, en français.
“Okay, go ahead.”
“Huh… trois baskets. What? Why are you laughing, mommy?”
Good thing he is a cute, young child, otherwise French would make fun of him. Trust me—French are ruthless when it comes to the proper use of language. I can’t think of any other country where families argue over the correct pronunciation or spelling of such and such word, whether this or that is feminine or masculine, what the correct name of an item should be. For instance, some French call the sweet chocolate bread a pain au chocolat and a minority call it a chocolatine and yes, there are memes and arguments about this. Anyone speaking fluent French with an accent—including our Belgian and Swiss neighbours—are considered “exotic.” As for Quebec joual, it gives French a heart attack. When Céline Dion speaks on French TV, subtitles are provided…
I write in French often enough—after all, I’m a translator—yet I rarely have the chance to speak it. I don’t lose my mother tongue but when I go back to France, my phrasing can sound exotic to locals. First, going back and forth between English and French is a strange exercise, second I often use Canadian French vocabulary.
After a couple of days, I’m fluent again in local French but it takes me longer to master these mundane social interactions where I have to trade North American small talk for oddly formal exchanges over a grocery basket or a bus ticket purchase. Instead of “hi-how-are-you-today-can-I-have…”, I have to remember to say “bonjour madame,” “bonjour monsieur,” “je vous remercie,” “il n’y a pas de quoi,” etc. And of course, I have to default to the proper “vous” pronoun instead of using “tu.”
North American English is very flexible compared to French. When I first learned it, I can’t remember anyone making fun of my accent, my efforts to communicate or my lack of vocabulary. And whenever I’d ask for grammatical explanations, people would often reply “oh… yeah, I say XYZ but some people say XYZ, both are just fine.” There are many exceptions in French but you’re supposed to know them and rules are considered absolute—you can’t make up a new conjugation unless the Académie française says it’s okay.
“I got hungry this afternoon,” Feng said. “So I went to buy a baguette.”
“Oh cool, you’re turning French!” I praised.
“I asked for a… baguette au sésame. But they didn’t understand me at first, because I pronounced it as seSAmee instead of SAYsame.”
French bakeries: 2. Mark and Feng: 0.