Using the word ‘ quoi’ in casual conversations can make you sound more fluent
In part six of our insider’s guide to life in France, Mark Sayers examines the quirks of the French language before deciding whether the French are rude or simply tactless
Although France and the UK are separated by a mere 35km stretch of water, moving to France sometimes involves more of a culture shock than many newbies expect. In this A-Z series we take a light-hearted look at the quirky side of life in France in a guide that will be handy for anyone contemplating the move, as well as those keen to blend in with the locals!
P is for Pronunciation
When in a foreign land it is always polite and judicious to at least attempt to speak the local language. Of course, French is notoriously difficult for us Brits to get our heads and tongues around and pronunciation is one of the hardest parts of the language for us to master.
Vowel sounds are something of an Achilles heel. I once had a French friend in fits of laughter as my wife and I were running late for a party. I called to tell him that we were on our way, saying ‘on est en route’. Unfortunately to pronounce the ‘ou’, instead of pursing my lips into a ‘kiss’ I inadvertently pursed them as if to whistle. The result was the word ‘rut’, which may sound similar to us but is a world apart for the French. I had inadvertently excused our lateness by claiming that we were feeling a bit frisky!
My French-born-and-bred bilingual children are often filled with mirth at what I consider to be my extremely passable French – I have a degree in the language and have lived here for 14 years using it every day. While I consider myself bilingual in the sense that I can converse fluently in pretty much any situation, I still rarely pass for a Frenchman and pronunciation is the reason why.
A mistake that recently had the children rolling on the floor was one I must have made countless times over the years. They overheard me leaving a voicemail message with my phone number, which I often repeat for a second time. Only instead of saying ‘je répète’ with the é pronounced as the vowels in the English word ‘mail’, I said it as if there were no accent on the first e, producing a sound like the e in ‘butter’. Instead of saying ‘I repeat’, I have unwittingly (and somewhat randomly) been saying ‘I’m farting again’! It’s fortunate that the French are so forgiving of our pitiful attempts at getting to grips with their beautiful language although you’d think that someone might have pointed out my embarrassing error!
Qi s for Quoi
When you’re trying to get your head around a language you sometimes come across words which are downright puzzling. ‘ Quoi’ is one of them. Literally it means ‘what’ as in “Tu as acheté quoi?” meaning ‘What did you buy?’ but is often confusingly thrown in at the end of a sentence as in “J’essaie de parler anglais mais c’est difficile, quoi”. In this context quoi serves no real purpose in the sentence, it is merely a conversational filler similar to ‘you know’, ‘like’ or, god forbid, ‘innit’ in English. The sentence could be translated as “I try to speak English but it’s difficult, you know”.
Using quoi can make you sound (deceptively) fluent but handle with care. Some consider it to be a bit vulgar and if you’re my age you could be perceived as trying, and failing miserably, to look cool. If you do drop it into a sentence – and it can be useful at times – use sparingly and keep it to casual conversations with friends. It’s definitely not one to try in a job interview!
Another potentially confusing word in French is the third person singular pronoun ‘on’. At school, we were always taught to use ‘nous’ for ‘we’, and grammatically that is correct but in reality, ‘on’ is used more often in casual conversation. Instead of saying “nous allons à la plage” which is perfectly correct, you’ll sound more French if you opt for “on va à la plage” when talking to friends.
Another tip for sounding more fluent than you actually are is to keep the useful little word ‘truc’ at your fingertips. Commit it to memory now because I assure you it will come in very handy on many occasions. Meaning ‘thing’ or even ‘thingumajig’, it is the perfect solution if you are in the middle of a conversation and your brain is frantically trying to recall a French word but can’t.
My French-born-and-bred bilingual children are often filled with mirth at what I consider to be my extremely passable French
R is for Rudeness
Are the French rude? Well they do certainly have a reputation for it. A 2012 Skyscanner survey put France at the top of the rudeness league tables internationally with 20% of the vote. One study into French attitudes to tourists concluded that French ‘performance in terms of welcome is below par’ – an interesting turn of phrase! In 2015, the government even launched a campaign to encourage French people working in the tourist industry to be more welcoming.
Well, of course, in 14 years I have come across rude people in France but the pleasant and polite ones I have met far outnumber them. One issue I think is a cultural one. A statement which you or I as foreigners might view as rude could be perceived as a perfectly acceptable thing to say in France. My (English) wife wouldn’t dream of saying “You look awful” to anyone but has been told this numerous times at the school gates. No malice is intended; indeed there is unspoken concern behind the statement, but with our British sensitivities it can come across as unduly harsh.
I know the French can find our Anglo-saxon pussyfooting around with niceties like tact and diplomacy frustrating. I appreciate that they like telling it like it is and that we shouldn’t take their forthrightness personally but sometimes that’s easier said than done. Like a female friend attempting to overcome her fear of swimming being told that “anyone carrying that much fat should have no trouble floating” or that you “look like a man in a dress” (two real life examples of French candour).
The French beat us hands down when it comes to many things but this is one area where I think they could actually learn a thing or two from us Brits!