Monday, February 28, 2011

Still learning how to say goodbye

 "Oh revwah!" I say after collecting my receipt from the nice lady at the gas station where I stop to fill up the tank with $100 worth of gas almost every week. Where does it go?

"Ah revwahrr," she calls back to me in that sing-songy French that is reserved for the very beginning-- bon jour-- and the very end-- au revoir-- of a conversation. The tone in the middle does not always sound so friendly. 

If anybody ever told me I would still be doubting the authenticity, the correctness, the effectiveness of my hellos and my goodbyes after close to two years of living in France I would have told them they were high.

Yet here I am, three months shy of two years in France, and I find myself muttering "au revoir" over and over and over to myself, like a lunatic, trying to perfect my delivery, and trying to figure out if I'm saying it wrong.

It just doesn't sound the same coming out of my mouth as it does coming into my ears from someone else's mouth.

Esther thinks I'm crazy. Crazy people do talk to themselves. She says I'm imagining it sounds different. She could be right. 

Considering all the different ways people can say "goodbye" in English-- with the emphasis on the good, the bye, or both, or none--does it really matter?

Yet, I remain obsessed. Does my "au revoir" still sound foreign and strange? Off somehow?

And how about my "bon jour? "  What of those women who say, "bon jouuurrraahh!?"  Should I be saying it like that?  (The more I think about this, the more I realize this may not be a language problem at all. All my life I've been accused of having just woken up when answering the phone. Apparently my English "hello" could use a makeover as well.)

I'm also learning that it helps to be, or at least pretend to be, angry to speak proper French. When I say a sentence nicely, and sheepishly, it just doesn't get understood. So I tried pretending to be angry, while driving the other day, and practicing a few sentences, sentences like, "the place was not very high"
("CE  ENDROIT N'ETAIS PAS TRES HAUT" ) and the difference was remarkable.

I'm getting the hang of this.

I have always known you need to tap into your inner actor when you speak another language. With German, I channeled my inner Schultz (Hogans Heroes), for French, it might have to be every rude waitress or saleslady I've ever come across.

I suppose I could try a romantic angle, and pretend to be Pepe le Pew, but.... that might get me in trouble.

I do know,  if you are at all self conscious, and not committed to your role, you are not going to be convincing. In short, you will suck.

My kids are excellent, natural actors. Their French is angry, school-kid French. I think they enjoy the verbal catharsis involved. Attitude is everything:

"Mais arrete! "Depeche toi!" "C'est toi qui est null!" (Stop! Hurry Up! It's you who are stupid!)

Inunciation, and lip curling, and the sounds and body language of constant, exasperated, why-are-you-such-an-idiot irritation seem to be crucial elements to success.

Sometimes it worries me. Are my kids learning French, or are they learning how to hone their inner bitches?

The other night Essie and Isla were engaging in an angry school-girl French conversation at the dinner table, and instead of feeling proud and being in awe of their ease with this new second language of theirs, I felt like shouting,

"Stop it! Stop it right now! Speak English! You are American, not French!"

I don't think I'm imagining that their personality changes depending on which language they speak. They lose some kindness when the French moves into their mouths. I suppose it is important for any girl or woman to learn how not to be nice. Niceness can be overrated. And false. And dangerous.

"Play nice!" we always hear. "Play nice."

So we'll just be actors, for now. Playing not nice. Formidable.


cecile said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cecile said...

Your picture is beautiful ! Is that Notre-Dame ? You could try to say "orvar", that's the way it sounds, no ? It's funny, here my friends always tell me that it sounds so nice when I talk to my kids... even when I feel like I'm not being nice at all. It's so hard to really learn a language. My daughter (5 years old) says that my English is not that good, she tries to make me pronunce better. Well, I think it's great that they have the opportunity to learn a language that early, it seems so natural then, and so not natural later !

Betsy said...

Esther is always helping me with my French. Isla even corrects me when I read to her. Their pronounciation is enviable.

It is so hard to learn a new language as an adult . And the hardest thing is learning it well enough to catch the nuances, and see through the tones, to the culture and the history and all that makes up the people who speak it. I don't think all French people are mean, by any means, it just feels like a harsh language to me right now. Probably because I am still feeling shunned by it. I want it to let me in, and I can't quite get all the way through the door. Therefore, it's easy to criticize it and make excuses for my inability to "get" it. We call it sour grapes, in English. Pretending to not want something you are having a hard time getting.

Betsy said...

p.s. Yes, that is Notre Dame. We climbed all those steps.

Seamingly Sarah said...

I've never thought about how some languages might make us become someone else. But I've never spoken another language fluently. So there you have it. Very interesting though.

Anonymous said...


I think that it's frustrating to learn a foreign language as an adult, or even as an older child. I never understood why we don't teach the children in America foreign languages right from the beginning. After all, our country borders one French speaking, and one Spanish speaking, country.

It's good to know that I'm not the only one who talks to themselves! My 4 year old asks me regularly who I'm talking to, or what I said, especially when I'm in the car. Or he'll simply say "Mom, you're talking to yourself again!" in a sweet sing-song voice.

I did crack up when you wrote about Esther and Isla channeling their inner bitches! It made me think of them as teenagers telling each other off in French! It could come in handy! And the French do have a flair for the dramatic at the very least. Just think of the robust way that they swear! Tres magnifique! And they still sound classy while doing it. Angry. Dramatic. But somehow classy!

The photo is beautiful as usual(And funny with the tongue sticking out! I've always wondered about the people that carved those gargoyles.). I feel tired thinking about walking up all of those steps! I've always wanted to visit Notre Dame, and many other sights in France. How many steps are there exactly? I've always wondered.... I guess that I'll Google it.

I was just teaching my son how to say that his head hurts in french. He got a "brain freeze" from eating his apple juice slushy. I'm not sure if they have a term for "brain freeze" in French. Anyone know?

Emma said...

It must be pretty cool to listen to your girls chatting (or arguing) away in French. Things sound so much more... important... in French! I used to work with a French girl, we both were at odds with our boss, and whenever she (the boss) would leave the room, my co worker would mutter "Imbecile!" (as in the French pronounciation) under her breath. Always summed things up much better, hahaha.

Anonymous said...

My daughter is happily playing Legos by herself right now. I should be working, but instead, I'm reading your blog!
Of the (few) foreign languages I know, my experience has always been to just go for it! You get far more credit for trying than staying mum. Even the French (in my limited experience) don't mind bad french as long as you attempt it. Besides, you'll get to have the glamorous accent!
Accents abound in the US, so why not enjoy your American accent? It not something you can have when at home. Its fun to be the glamorous foreign one! Its an honest excuse to be different. I know I always feel like I stick out like a sore thumb no matter what I'm doing. My impression from your blogs is that we have this in common. Embrace it! And let your daughters translate!!
Ok, back to work....

Betsy said...

Anonymous: I'm not afraid to speak French. I do speak French, every day, but never enough, nor good enough, to feel as if I am forming any sort of bond, other than superficial, with anyone French. This is what is missing for me. Until you have regular contact and conversation with someone French, the language will not flourish. I speak German, quite fluently, and the only way I got fluent, even after 8 years of studying it, was by having a German speaking friend to just hang out, and chat with. This is hard for a mother to find time for even in her own language.I know expats who have lived here for 20 years and still feel as if they don't have any true French friends. Just an observation, that's all. Foreign languages take loads of effort.

Betsy said...

Kim: Not sure about the brain freeze expression. I will investigate.

Mama Badger said...

I always thought speaking proper french required channeling your inner snob. (which explains why my husband can't get the simplest expressions out- he doesn't have a hoity-toity bone in his body).

Maybe it's good for the girls to have their own "snob" language. If they reserve that behavior for when they are speaking French, maybe when the come back to the US they won't use it on their friends.

Amy V Palmer said...

I remember trying on espadrilles in St. Jean de Luz and trying sweetly to speak my "Jean Valjean" french. The saleswoman turned away. I think I muttered, "Chienne," under my breath.
Yet, over the border in Spain, one is encouraged to practice and is greeted with smiles. Qu'ien sabe?