Remembering French in a New France

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My apprehension about whether I remembered French after 16 years, and my surprise at how much France had changed.

Remembering French after not speaking it for 16 years.

I was apprehensive upon returning to France for the first time in sixteen years since studying here in 2003. Now I’m back, on a project, and many things plagued me. What would I order in restaurants now that I can afford more than 3€ a day for bread and cheese*? Would I have to buy better clothes? And most pressing: Would I still remember how to speak French?

It turns out I do remember. But France has changed, and I have changed, and I’m not sure we’re headed in the same directions.

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I decided to address that last question of whether I remember French head-on. As soon as my taxi left Bordeaux’s airport, I struck up a conversation with the driver. It went fairly well. I forgot a couple of words but managed to work around them with alternative phrasings.

A few minutes in he asked:

Vous êtes de quel coin de France?
(“What part of France are you from?”)

The driver was surprised that I wasn’t from France. So, success number one. I had come across as someone who lives in France!

It’s worth noting that “someone who lives in France” includes many kinds of people. France has a multicultural society and has welcomed (especially over the last few decades) many waves of immigration, particularly from North Africa. I’ve met many first-generation immigrants, and they’ve all been from Senegal, the Congo, Morocco, and elsewhere in the Middle East. They all speak French, but many are happy to help me practise Arabic, even though my Arabic is Egyptian and a little rusty, and nowhere near the level of my French — a much easier language, that I spent a lot more time on, doing my Engineering thesis in the language.

France was already multicultural when I last visited in 2003-4. That was the year, by the way, when France famously passed the law banning Islamic headdress in public schools. So society was also beginning to react to the waves of immigration. I already felt the first hints of racism then: subtle microaggressions in the way some (few) people treated me in some parts of town. I brushed them away at the time, but these days see them as just the surface murmurings of larger societal discontent.

The Hate

For anyone who’s interested in a first-person perspective of what micro-aggressions are like in France, watch La Haine, “The Hate” (IMDB: 8.1; Rotten Tomatoes: 100%). It’s a black and white film from 1995 that follows three friends around a day in Paris, from the exterior to the middle of the city and back. The three protagonists are from immigrant families: there’s Saïd, of Arab descent, Vinz, of Jewish background, Hubert, who’s of African (black) origins.

Poster La Haine - a great French movie describing cultural malaise.
Poster for “La Haine”

My favourite subtle line describing what it was like living in the outskirts of Paris in neighbourhoods with high concentrations of immigrants was said by Saïd, the one of Arab descent, when describing an interaction with a police officer in Paris, who had just given him directions in an unusually polite tone. You hear the police ending the conversation with “au revoir, Monsieur.

Said remarked to his friends:

“Que les flics sont polis ici! Il m’a dit ‘vous’ et tout !”
(“Wow the cops are so polite here! He even called me

French society can be very formal and stratified, and it’s reflected in the language. Most fundamentally, French has a formal voice, where you use the plural conjugation of vous to address a single person, rather than the singular tu. The English equivalent is like addressing someone by their last or first name (“Hello Mr. Hooshmand” vs. “Hi Dana”), but you do it in French without using a name at all. The French use vous to show respect for strangers (when buying bread, ordering food), to acknowledge social status (e.g. addressing the elderly, or anyone in a position of authority), or really when talking to anyone who’s not a child under the age of 12. To address someone as tu is known as to tutoyer someone; or to “be on intimate terms”. Saïd was used to the police yelling at him in informal tu tone, so being addressed as a vous was a novel experience. But it’s an experience that nearly everyone in France enjoys on a daily basis.

On top of this, French is more formal than most languages in casual conversation. You might know the phrase “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame!” (“Good morning Sir/Madam!”), and chuckle as you imagine it being jovially thrown around by the French to greet one another. It’s not just a cliché — you hear phrases like this constantly in France. Compare this with any English-speaking society. People are generally friendly, but far from the point of formality where they’ll greet you with “Good morning Sir/Madam!” just for entering their humble bakery. Saïd would rarely be called “Monsieur” by a police officer in his life in the outskirts of Paris.

So Saïd was expressing surprise at getting to enjoy French formalities that most of us get to enjoy every day, and contrasting it with the way the police normally treat him: like a threat. The rest of the film makes that clear. He was perceived a threat because of where he’s from, both within France, and culturally.

Saïd and his friends are from the outskirts of Paris, known as the banlieus. The banlieus are lower socio-economic areas, home to many immigrants from North Africa and neighbouring countries. They’ve also become known as areas higher in petty crime, and areas where protests and riots begin. Police are unwelcome there and are understandably more on edge when patrolling the area, expecting to be yelled at or maybe to have a stone thrown at them.

All this was true in 1995, when the film was released, and it’s even truer now. Because in the last twenty-plus years, like in most of the world, France’s social politics about race and immigration have become even more polarised.

In the early 2000s, President Jacques Chirac signed a law banning the Muslim headscarf in public schools. This was the last legacy of what The Guardian called Chirac’s “wasted Presidency“, which began in 1991 when he was still the Mayor of Paris, during which period in a speech he deplored people leading an “African” lifestyle in France, describing “the noise and the smell” (“le bruit et l’odeur“) that a neighbour would experience if living next to a large African family. This phrase became sampled and co-opted in the name of a popular song by social activist rap group Zebda.

But during his Presidency, at at least, Chirac was pro-immigration, wanting to find a solution that would be progressive and support the French economy.

Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, threw that out the window, saying immigrants must “accept that the ancestors of France are the Gauls” and that immigrants must “live like the French”. But even he was somewhat moderate; he knew France had a problem with immigration but recognised that it was what had made America great (something the latest American Presidency has forgotten).

President François Hollande, generally also moderate, still said France has a “problem with Islam” and that there are “too many immigrants”. Now President Emmanuel Macron’s policies aren’t set in stone yet, but he just last week characterised as “bourgeois” anyone not concerned about the “immigration problem”.

Les bourgeois n’ont pas de problèmes avec [l’immigration] : ils ne la croisent pas. Les classes populaires vivent avec.
(“The bourgeois don’t have a problem with [immigration]: they don’t encounter it. The working class lives with it.”)

Emmanuel Macron, 2019

And so Macron is politicising immigration further, saying “if you’re not concerned with immigration, it’s because you’re too bourgeois to notice. Are you bourgeois? Or are we going to deal with this?”

This kind of rhetoric is almost from a play-book in gaining popular support against immigration: it works in Trump’s race and identity politics, it worked in Australia’s “White Australia” policies over the course of the 20th century, and it’s working now in countless other places that make me too sad to cite.

Here’s a scene from La Haine, where Hubert complains about closet racists, letting themselves get pushed around by popular rhetoric, comparing them to people who stand still on escalators:

“Tu vois ceux qui s’arrêtent de marcher dans les escaliers mécaniques? Ceux qui se laissent porter par le système? C’est les mêmes qui votent Le Pen mais qui sont ‘pas racistes’. C’est les même qui font les grèves pour protester dès que les escalators tombent en panne. La pire des races!”

(“You see those people who don’t walk on escalators? Those who let themselves get carried by the system? They’re the same people who vote Le Pen but who ‘aren’t racist’. They’re the same people who go on strike when the escalators stop working. The worst of people!”)

You see unrest among France’s working class in the protests that happen now with ridiculous frequency. It’s an old joke that going on strike is France’s national pastime. But protests, often turning into riots, have become even more common. And there have been protests and riots in Paris every weekend since mid-2018.

Protesters in France protest against everything you can imagine: immigration, anti-immigration, climate change, fuel taxes impacting the working class, budget cuts, and probably much more. I can’t keep up, I’m just one man and there are so many, plus, many other countries to keep up with!

Most recently, there has been the so-called “yellow vests” (“gilets jaunes”) movement. This started in late 2018 as a response to taxes on gasoline, which were a response to lower tax revenue because of pro-climate change legislation that limited the top speed of cars on certain roads. But the latest tax on gasoline was cast by some as a tax on the working class who are forced to drive, so they began protesting, wearing the safety vests that French drivers are forced to carry by law. The protests were co-opted by various anarchist groups, and so the regular weekend occurrences are marred by violence including throwing rocks at police, setting fire to garbage cans and vehicles, and looting.

So France is crazier than ever (or maybe a new kind of crazy).

But back to French. What’s changed in the language between 2003 and 2019? Not a lot, but I’ve changed, and I brought my language along with it.

Becoming a vous

Firstly, getting older means that I, too, have become a vous, and have needed to start speaking more formally along with it. Because I’m interacting with older people in more professional settings, I call more people vous. All my interactions have become a lot more formal. And most interestingly, as the boss, and the customer, I’m the one who gets to decide who’s a vous.

Most parts of the world we travel to are pretty casual in their greetings and pleasantries compared to France. In Spain, everyone is a tu. Arabic has no formality levels in the language (although they do have a ton of greetings). Tanzanians are more formal than Kenyans, but on a global scale they’re all pretty relaxed. Chinese does (您 vs 你), but you only hear it very rarely, like when being addressed at a bank. Australia’s English, if it were a person, would pretty much wear t-shirts everywhere. (Yes we speak excellent, high-level English. But there’s little pomp and circumstance, to the point where the phrase “pomp and circumstance” sounds unnecessarily fancy.)

But weeks into my stay in France, I find myself using phrasing like:

  • “Excuse me for bothering you Sir, but may I please ask a question?”
  • “Would it be troublesome if we were to sit here?”
  • “I would be very grateful if you could please lend us a fan.” (to our AirBnB host)

Who am I becoming? So much fluff around basic requests. But I enjoy one aspect of it. Because by using flowery language and formalities I get to make a declaration: I belong here in France.

Saying a raft of extra words is a little chance to say “I speak French; and beyond that, I act French.” If I just wander into a bakery without greeting the owner and request bread with a curt “une baguette s’il vous plait“, they’ll give me the bread but with no other pleasantries — even though I had a “please” on the end. No conversation, maybe a curt smile as they hand me the change. It’s the equivalent of walking into a coffee shop anywhere in the West and just saying “coffee”.

Say a few common pleasantries in France, however, and you just might be drawn into a conversation. Even if you’re just nodding and smiling. Once, when buying prepaid phone credits in Bordeaux, I found myself suddenly in a long conservation with the shop owner about climate change, in which she told me that credit card transactions had a hidden environmental burden because of data storage power consumption. I was entirely unconvinced about the importance of this idea, but I just let her keep talking out of fascination for how long this extremely routine transaction would continue. If I were anywhere in Asia, I would have been home by the time she finished talking.

The long conversations in daily errands make everything feel like bureaucracy. And it makes me realise: French bureaucracy is doing with paper what they do with the language: making simple transactions into long conversations.

The hardest part of becoming a vous, by the way, has been having to replace my ample repository of French slang with formal words. I only knew one way of saying something’s annoying: “c’est chiant, ça!” which loosely translates to “that really shits me!”. That phrasing doesn’t pass muster when you’re a manager pushing 40.

Becoming more confident

Secondly, in the last sixteen years I’ve become a lot more confident, and less insecure. This, I believe, is one of the secret sauces of language learners.

Whereas I’d once feel embarrassed, I now don’t care if I’ve forgotten a word or got a conjugation wrong. I work around it, or assume the person I’m speaking to will understand. At the end of it, I know I’m still here, I’m worthy of respect.

I still do the same things after the fact. If I don’t know how to say something, I’ll look it up later so I will know the next time. But in the meantime, I’ll just say anything, or throw an English word in, and not care about whether they judge my fluency or me as a person.

Part of this is just to do with becoming more senior in my work. I’m now “general manager” level, and I know that whatever I say automatically has authority, whether implied or granted. I know that if I call a meeting, people will show up (so I have to be gentle and make sure it’s actually convenient for people). So if I forget a word or two (last week I couldn’t say “the clutch”… ah yes, it’s l’embrayage), I know it doesn’t reflect badly on me.

Another part of it is I’ve come far enough in life in general to know my own worth. If I spend a while diagnosing a complex work situation and come up with a product to fix it, and am explaining it to the people I’m working with, then I know that the value of what I’m doing is totally independent of the language: the language is just a bonus.

If I could go back in time and tell a younger language learning Dana anything, it would be this:

You are worthy of respect, including of your own. Nobody who is worth your time is judging you superficially. You deserve to be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

Unfortunately, you can’t just be told this stuff — you have to believe it. And that takes time!

Keeping the language centre alive

Finally, I’m certain that studying other languages has kept my language centre alive.

In the last six months of studying Arabic and Swahili, there have been many times when we’ve thought “Oh, that’s a word from some other language!”

Or we think of silly mnemonics to help us remember a word or a phrase that sticks in our head. For some reason, Jo can summon on-demand “your shoes are nice” in Arabic, and I always want to say “Oh my porcupine!” because that’s how I remember the Swahili word for porcupine (nungu vs. the Swahili word for God, mungu).

Every time we learn one of these ridiculous mnemonics, we’re building neural connections in the language centre of our brains. I’m not a neurologist, but I am a blogger, and thus have a wider public audience than most neurologists (note: if you’re a neurologist and have an opinion, I want to give you a platform — contact us!). My opinion: by studying any language I’m working out the same part of my brain, and keeping my language centre generally “fit”, and thus keeping all the languages somewhat on the boil.

I liken it to general fitness. If I get fit with one sport, it’s the same body that will be generally fit for another sport. I trained for years with CrossFit, then quit for a while. In the 18 months between CrossFit gym sessions, I did many thousands of push-ups and sit-ups in my living room, ran hundreds of kilometres, and stretched sometimes. On my first innings back in a gym after 18 months, I found myself about 15% slower and weaker than when I was at my peak, but still leagues ahead of where I was when I had started training in the first place.

People often ask us: “How do you maintain the languages you learn?” Short answer: we don’t. We let time act as a natural filter for making us remember what’s important, and forgetting what’s not. Move over, Anki: Life is the ultimate spaced-repetition flashcard system.

But we’ll only remember the other languages as long as we keep learning. It means we can’t become stagnant. We either push forward, or go backwards. So, that’s the rest of our lives mapped out for us…

* Oh by the way — some things don’t change. Our budgets may have increased massively, but we still get immense joy out of a baguette from the local bakery and cheese from Carrefour. It’s amazing. Three Euros goes a long way!

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10 months ago

Loved this, Dana! You’ve brought up so many interesting points… on language learning in general, formality of the French language, La Haine (have to watch). Really well done. Sharing w/my FB community to discuss. 😉