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

French Property News - - News - Mark Say­ers is head of the Per­pig­nan of­fice of Ar­taxa, an es­tate agency in Langue­doc-rous­sil­lon Tel: 0033 (0)4 67 28 20 35 ar­taxa.com

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!

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