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Lost in translation: Est-ce que j’arrive?

THREE YEARS AGO, my wife Nichola and I visited Paris and Marseille while our son Thomas was in France on an exchange. It amazed me how we can pick up the language once every few years, and even improve. We were better than we’d been in Belgium five years earlier, and way beyond the high school French we’d both started with so many decades ago.

Hearing Thomas’ French while we stayed with his Marseille family for two days, and feeling the abrupt shift of gears he had to go through in order to speak English to us, made me wonder about this language thing. It’s definitely easier to switch your head into a language, and stay there for awhile, instead of going back and forth. Thomas’ host father Marc was surprised when he heard us speak to Thomas in French while at their house, but that wasn’t just politeness. It’s very practical to stay in the tongue once you’re rolling!

In Avignon, we went into the tourist office to ask for help finding a hotel, and when we came out Nic asked me if I thought the clerk found it funny that I spoke to my wife in French rather than English. I quite honestly could not remember that I’d done that. I could recall what I’d asked her, but not the language I’d expressed it in.

As we discussed this over pizza, I came up with 5 or 6 stages of bilingualism, and then tried to rate our language function.

Stage 1  Minimal Function: you can communicate only very simple requests, like finding a washroom or ordering a cup of coffee, and you routinely get lost with the first question in response.

Stage 2  Conversational Function: you can hold a two-way conversation, perhaps for quite a long time, provided it’s with one other individual, and you can stop things when you don’t understand. You begin to “think” in the second language, that is, you search for meaning in your head and find the words to express it, without translating from your native language.

Stage 3  Multi-Conversational Function: you can hold your own in a larger group, following abrupt changes in topic, and understanding conversations even when you don’t have control over them. You can follow a simple television show or listen to the radio news. You routinely think in the other language.

Stage 4  Cultural Function: You can read a novel in the other language comfortably, and understand cultural references. You can watch a movie. You can make word play jokes. You dream in the other language. You’re fully comfortable in large groups. You can work in the other language (non-intellectual jobs).

Stage 5  Full Function: You can attend a play in the second language. You can work in an intellectually demanding job. You can switch between your native language and the second language with ease. You can translate a reasonably complicated text.

Stage 6  Exceptional Function: You can translate on the fly (interpretation). You make no distinctions or preferences between the languages in your head. You can pass for a native speaker in either language. (I think you either need to be raised in both languages to achieve this, like say Jean Charest, or you need an exceptional gift for languages.)

So, where are we? When you travel, you come upon all kinds of language situations. Sometimes, you do well, speak with reasonable confidence and understand most of the replies. At other times, you feel like you hardly speak at all, because your pronunciation messes up even a simple question (the exact way of saying “dessert” for instance!). The vowel sounds are the most problematic.

We had a great problem finding a town spelled “Buoux”, partly because of its difficult name. We were following a recommendation to visit this picturesque spot, but never really caught the correct pronunciation. Boo? Booge? Biot? In any case, it was out of the way, down a hilly road that scared the pants off Nic as it wound round in a single lane.

Buoux had a certain charm, nestled among fields of dormant lavender, but it wasn’t the destination we expected. Had we actually found the right place? We weren’t sure. As we tried to leave, we ran into a dead end in the middle of rocky canyon, after ignoring a sign that said “route barré, 2 kilometres” (we didn’t believe that, or didn’t want to), then finding a bridge that was under construction and impassable! We retraced our steps, and when we asked an aging fellow on the side of the road for directions out of the maze, he pronounced the town as something like “bouge” or “bouche”.

Back at our hotel, we tried to tell the story to our waiter. He pronounced the town “buge” (like “huge” but with a soft g). He had a bit of an attitude. So, as Nic told the story of our day, he either didn’t understand, or pretended not to, as he gave her a pronunciation lesson on the vowel differences between “roue” (wheel), “rue” (city street) and “route” (main road) – all terms she was using in her story, but which left him with a dumbfounded look on his face.

(She was trying to say, we had one wheel off the side of the highway and I felt like we were going to fall off the road, but he was hearing something like, we had one road off the side of the street and I thought we’d fall off the wheel.)

So, what’s our French proficiency? Somewhere between Stages 2 and 3, I think, although at moments we surprise ourselves. We went into a shop to look at Provençale tablecloths for the umpteenth time. But on this visit, we actually bought one, because the woman was so nice to us. What started out as a friendly sales exchange about the different materials used for the tablecloths evolved into a 15-minute discussion of child raising, the qualities of French versus Canadian bread flour, the accent of Québécois traveling in France (she can easily spot a Canadian who speaks French, but can’t distinguish English speaking Canadians from Americans), and back to the best place to find a coffee in town!

At night, Nic began watching TV in French, mostly dubbed English shows. She admitted that she caught very little of the French CSI (which can be confusing in English), but the James Bond film with Halle Berry was okay because it was mostly action with a lot of “tu es méchant” and so on!

It is difficult to judge how we’re doing in French, because most of the people we have interactions with now are trying to sell us something, and praising our language is an easy way of buttering us up in order to clinch the deal, we suspect.

The matter is complicated by the fact that Nic and I have different strengths and weaknesses in the other language. She’s better at throwing herself into a conversation with total strangers. I like to think I’m better at ironing out the precise meaning of something, or getting the verb tense correct. (I lecture her in restaurants on the difference between “de l’eau” and “d’eau”, and why “du l’eau” is never correct!).

On the other hand, having two people is a source of strength as well, because when one is completely flummoxed by a response, there’s always the chance that the other has heard it perfectly, understands completely and can smoothly take over!

But there’s a downside: the problem of interrupting each other in mid-conversation, which ends up as two semi-functional speakers arguing with each other in a language that neither speaks very well. I was haggling about our rental car with an unfriendly clerk in Marseille. We had agreed that I would take the lead and try to switch the car they gave us (which had a large crack in the windshield), and that Nic would not interrupt me.

As I did my best to plead our case in rapidly failing French, I could hear Nic chirping in behind me with addenda, so I gave her a backwards swing of my leg (okay, a kick) to remind her of our deal. This prompted some laughter from the man behind her in the line, and a further disrupting conversation right behind me! (I still managed to get a replacement rental car, however.)

In any case, the language thing is immensely complicated and fun. The French are mostly very easy to understand, and every now and then we run into an accent that just delights us, and we want to speak to the person all day.

My favourite new phrase is “j’arrive.” I’ve heard it a lot, and it means more than the obvious “I arrive”, something more like “I am coming”, which you wouldn’t guess with high school French. (A café waitress who spots us at our table, but hasn’t had time to take our order yet, will call over her shoulder “J’arrive!”)

When it comes to French, est-ce que j’arrive? I hope so.

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