“Gimme me a bise, baiser or bisou – just don’t use baiser as a verb”: A guide to Kissing

In cold, rainy England, where we try to limit physical contact with unknowns (and sometimes friends) as much as possible, and where being accidentally brushed by someone on the tube warrants an apology (on the part of the brushed, that is), the idea of kissing somebody you have just met is, despite our (vague) awareness of our continental neighbours, not really done. Unless you’re being a pretentious prick like I was Continue reading


Ten months on, and I can speak French now…

My my it’s been a while since my first-ever post on this blog, back in August when I was a tender ERASMUS uninitiate. Back when I had no confidence in my French abilities, no skiing ability and no idea of the wonderful people whom I would meet. Now, after ten months of the Swiss experience, I can more or less speak French fluently, have made some life-changing friends…but sadly still Continue reading

Accent part 2. Or, say that again, I love your accent…

We all know by now how big a deal accent becomes when you throw a load of different nationalities together (see Accent part 1). Increasingly (to my secret delight), francophones have been telling me how I have a “joli accent“, or even better, not much of one at all. But in fact, I now see the importance of actually keeping an accent. And it’s not even to retain a bit of exoticism or charm, but for purely practical reasons.

A Frenchie once told me, “It’s essential that you don’t lose your accent completely. That way, when you make mistakes, we can forgive you. If you have no accent, we won’t.” A bit of a harsh way of putting it, but hey, he was French. My own experience in China, where I look and more or less sound like a local, has taught me that having something that marks you out immediately as foreign can be a good thing. When shopkeepers address me with simple questions which I can’t understand, I do just literally look like a simpleton.

So what makes one accent attractive, and another offensive? Naturally it depends on individual taste, but outside of England the English one seems pretty universally popular I’m happy to report. Even the chavvy English accent seems, for some mystical reason, to wield a sort of quaint charm. So whether David Beckham or Hugh Grant, the Brit accent is a winner all round (clearly the main reason English boys pull outside of the homeland).

But it’s amazing how an accent can layer on or strip away someone’s allure in an instant. Surely you’ve all experienced that moment where you see a visually appealing boy/girl, but then they open their mouth and you can’t understand but one word, or they seem extremely maladroit? Pity. Or inversely someone can be incredibly appealing simply because they are so dashingly well-spoken, or have the cutest of accents!

Then sometimes the effect of accent can be rather perplexing. For example, a Swiss German I know with whom I normally speak French but who comes out with a heavy Californian accent every time he speaks in English (random or what?!). Or just plain bizarre, such as an Ancient Greek teacher I once had who, massive, skin-headed, and always clad in black t-shirts emblazoned with disturbing graphics from heavy metal groups and spiked jewellery, spoke in the most refined, genteel, dignified of English accents.

I’m banging on about accents because I just happen to have done a presentation for my phonetics class all about how difficult it is to acquire an “authentic” accent in a foreign language. And it’s true; no matter how impressive your mastery of a language, however grand your written skills, it’s your accent that’s going to betray you in an instant when you open your mouth to speak.

The article that I was studying suggested that we are inherently resistant to acquiring an accent in a foreign language because it is a sort of attack on our identity, which is deeply rooted in our mother tongue. What balls! Nobody who hears someone’s English accent while they are trying to speak French wants to sound like that! On the other hand, my Swiss friends are convinced that the fact that the French tend to have a notoriously strong accent is yet another indication of their narcissism, and how they can’t be bothered to try in another language, so proud are they of being French. But let’s not open that can of worms; the subject of the Swiss vs. the French will provide much rich material for a completely separate post…

Pronunciation is not generally something that is actively taught in a foreign language class, and is usually neglected in favour of the actual mechanics of a language, which is a pity. I’ve met people who have an excellent level in a foreign language, yet still struggle to make themselves understood.

So don’t under-estimate the importance of getting the accent right. I’m not even nearly done on the topic of accents. Next post is still going to be about accents, but in one’s own native language. I know – you can’t wait, right?

The Language Files 10: Now that’s my language…

I don’t know about you but I sometimes find it hard enough to express myself when I’m speaking in my mother tongue, let alone a foreign one. I’m much more comfortable with the written word, where I have more time to formulate. There is sadly no backspace for your mouth. E-mails to friends, even facebook messages, can become meandering, elaborate essays and I wish I were as articulate when speaking, but the words tend to trip over one another.

That’s in English. Imagine how it is when I am trying to express my more complicated cogitations in French, and I am (as is usually the case) in an awful hurry to get it all out. It’s amazing, then, how I have somehow managed to have some really quite profound (I like to think) conversations in French. A challenge enough with a native speaker, but imagine with another non-francophone…

Yet, somehow we manage. My comely German neighbour and I do not share a mother tongue, yet our regular tea and chat sessions in (albeit staccato and mixed with German and English) French are more enjoyable and rewarding than many a conversation I happen to have in English. And she’s not the only one. How is it that, umming-and-ahhing and vocabulary mind-blanks aside, sometimes conversations in French just seem to flow better than with others in English?

This is how I know that language can be completely arbitrary, if you got the click. I know couples who do not share a mother tongue, yet muddle along just fine; better than many couples who do. It can be difficult for your full personality and sense of humour to come across in a foreign language, but they are often transmitted without a word being spoken anyway. Indeed, an Italian I know, who happens to be in a non-native-language-sharing romance himself (there must be a simpler term for this!), really likes to emphasise the importance of body language!

But seriously though, to communicate one’s values and motivations and find them compatible with another’s (the essential ingredients for a friendship, or any relation that brings any kind of satisfaction), an expansive arsenal of advanced vocabulary and sophisticated grammatical manipulation is not necessary. All you need is that little bit of magic, that chemistry, that affinité, and you’re laughing.

My Many Language Lovers

Having just read a post on a friend’s blog describing his learning Spanish like a love affair, I was struck at how apt an analogy it was. It got me looking at the language-learning process from a new perspective. I started reflecting on my own various linguistic affairs and dalliances and realised when it comes to languages I’m a bit of a hussy.

When a language catches my eye/ear, I like to give it a go, commitment-free, see how it feels on my tongue and decide if it is a prospect for further pursuit. Therefore, I am about to do something I would NEVER do about my actual love life: I’m going to outline here my relationship with every language with whom I’ve ever had an affair, no holds barred, all the gory details included…

My old man: English. Of course we have to start with the langue maternelle. He’s been with me all my life, and no matter how hard I try I’ll never be able to escape the clutches of the one who has influenced me the most in my life, who determined who I am today and continues to dominate my every thought. He’s my point of reference for every other language, and I love and hate him. I love him because he is so much a part of me, yet I hate being in his grip; and it really is an inescapable one. EVERYONE knows him.

My current lover: French. Romantic and exciting, we’ve been together long enough for me to have a good understanding of him, but not long enough for me to be bored. I’m learning new things about him everyday, and he’s opened me up to a wealth of culture and literature I would not have been able to experience without him. He’s a challenge, intoxicating, charming and oh-so-beautiful!

The one that won’t leave me alone: German. Something just never quite worked with us. I dedicated four years of my life to him, and on paper, we were a perfect match (full marks in my German GCSE). People often complimented my pronunciation, and I found him very appealing: a handsome, refined sort of fellow. But he was too aloof, always just out of my reach. I worked hard but in the end we just weren’t fusing; I had to let him go. Yet now he is constantly popping up everywhere I go, I can’t escape. Though a part of me wants to start things up again, I don’t think we really have a future.

My childhood sweetheart: Chinese (mandarin). My first-ever love, the first language I learned to speak, my origin and my destiny. Somewhere along the line, we just grew apart. My current husband, English, got in the way, and became a far bigger presence in my life. I still long for the days when I could speak Chinese fluently, and now I regret having neglected him. We can build on our foundations but we’ve wasted a lot of time apart. Every time I hear his melodic tones I feel my heart soften; something about him still feels like home.

The (much) older man: Latin. He was so old he was positively a relic; dead, even. He was filled with the wisdom of the ages, but we were very stop-and-start. I renewed my liaison with him twice, each time full of hope for us, but in the end he was just too old for me. He enriched my relationships with other Romance languages, but wasn’t relevant enough for my modern life. My peers regarded us with a mixture of incomprehension and admiration. I am still full of respect for him, but I needed someone younger, with more validity and, well, life.

The one(s) that got away: Chinese (Cantonese and Hubei dialect). This was a strange relationship because I was completely passive. I understood, but I could not speak. Over the years, I didn’t bother to cultivate my understanding, and of course no man likes to be under-appreciated. He left me, and I let him go without a fight.

The Fling: Ancient Greek. We had some serious chemistry. For two weeks last summer we had an intense entanglement, but then it burned out pretty fast when we tried to carry things on here in Lausanne. It was fun while it lasted, but I wasn’t willing to commit time and energy to someone I didn’t like enough. Ultimately not The One.

The one that could have been: Italian. I entertained the idea of pursuing him instead of French at university, and was even offered a place on a course, but in the end Frenchie won. We got together briefly for a week in Italy but both parties knew it was temporary; just for convenience. He’s dashing and seductive, but doesn’t really fit into my lifestyle. I admire from a distance.

The accidental affair: Japanese. I never really intended to start anything with him, yet a brief period in my adolescence watching Japanese dramas and listening to J-Rock gave me a surprising level of comprehension. I found him cute and endearing, but he elicited a vague feeling of guilt when I thought about my other, and first, Asian love: Chinese. I owed it to my family honour to focus more on my first love, the one they approved of.

The sexy new prospects: Spanish and Portuguese. I fancy them both, but friends have warned me against two-timing them; being so similar they are very easily confused. Spanish always danced vaguely in my consciousness, as many of my friends have had long-term relationships with him, but I never really considered him a real prospect, until I fell in love with Latin dance and Latin culture. Suddenly, Spanish took on a whole new sex appeal. A vague obsession with Brazil similarly awakened a powerful attraction to Portuguese. These two guys breath warmth and passion, cultures completely different to what I have known and the thrilling prospect of South American adventures. Spanish and I have a date this Thursday, and Portuguese…well, we’ll see.

The Language Files 8: The pot calls the kettle… “un black”?

It’s been a while since we’ve had a language file. I’m pleased to say that in general I am feeling increasingly at ease in French (I’m purposely blanking out an oral exam I had on Greek religion here…). Constructing sentences, anally retentive insistence on grammatical perfection considered, is getting easier. One thing that no grammar book can teach you, however, is how to be P.C. As in, politically correct. As in, how not to offend people.

Not (thankfully) that I have made any major cultural boo-boos, but one thing that has surprised me is racial terms. Specifically, in French, if you are referring to a black person you call them un black – “a black”. You don’t say une personne noire, i.e. “a black person”, as I just did in English. It’s taken some getting used to. In fact, the French word for black, noir, is a dodgy one when describing people, and carries a high risk of offense. It is much safer to go with the English “black”.

Two things spring up immediately which make me think, HUH? Firstly, black? Why the adoption of the English word? Bizarre. It has become more acceptable to use an English word for a word which exists already in the language and means exactly the same thing. Secondly, what happened to the word noir to make it so undesirable? Naturally, as an English speaker, any French word has a nuance of class and chic, so my viewpoint is slightly blinkered; it sounds prettier than the English equivalent if anything. It certainly isn’t an out and out offensive term like the other N-word no-one likes to say (except some black people themselves, but that’s a whooole other post…)

Good luck to you in England if you refer to “a group of blacks”! But it is acceptable to say that in French. In fact, in French, you can make a noun of any race and it’s perfectly acceptable. Un Français, la Méxicaine, ces Chinois…. Well, in English sometimes the same thing just doesn’t work: “I was talking to the French”…the French what? Man? Woman? All the French in existence? In other cases, it seems acceptable, “I was out with the Italians” (as in, a particular group of Italian people). Other times it smacks of disrespect: “that Japanese over there”. It works with some races, not with others.

How tricky it is to navigate the perilous waters of racial labels! It is unspeakable to refer to someone as “coloured” in England but in South Africa it is the name of a race. Yes, I was surprised when I first heard that there is an ethnic group called “Coloureds”. Though I know it’s acceptable there, every time I hear it, ouch! I can’t help flinching inside.

A lot of people seem to have a problem when I refer to myself as “yellow”. They often protest, “but you’re not yellow…you’re more white than some white people!” But then white people aren’t really white are they? I’d say many err on the pink side. (Incidentally, you can’t say un blanc – or indeed un white – in French. I digress.) Just as black people would probably be more accurately described as “brown”, but it’s just what we say, n’est-ce pas? Yellow, therefore, is the colour I attribute to myself as an Asiatique, but it doesn’t seem to have entered into everyday language. Is it offensive? I haven’t a clue. I don’t think so, but then I never have anybody refer to me as yellow, except for myself, and fellow yellows (ha! That rhymes…), and mostly with a heavy dose of irony.

I could go on. It’s a touchy subject for some, and elicits naught but indifference in others, but it’s something that we here, in a multi-national community on an increasingly globalised planet, should all be aware of. I’m personally still bewildered…un black? Really? Where did that come from, I would love to know!

The Language Files 7: Un mélange étrange des langues! A strange language mélange

Have you ever felt your brain literally melt?

I have.

Over a year ago, a bilingual French and English friend of mine was very kindly helping me with my French presentation. I had written a rough draft in French, with a bit of English dotted in when I really couldn’t think of how to express something in French. He was reading the text aloud, when he sputtered to a halt at an English phrase, and closed his eyes in a mixture of pain, dismay and confusion. I found the franglais quite amusing, but he saw no humour in it. “Seriously,” he groaned, “when your French gets better you’ll understand how brain-melting it is to switch suddenly from one language to another.”

I didn’t know what he meant at the time. I had started French just over a year before, and I was pretty much constantly translating directly from English in my head. Now, I understand exactly how he felt.

The bewilderment comes when you start thinking in and getting into the flow of one language, and then you start to speak in another, but words creep in from the first. Saturday night was a perfect example. I was at a little party consisting of English-, French- and German-speakers (Swedish too, but they weren’t speaking it, they spoke perfect English as all Nordic people seem to). So there was quite a lot of language swapping going on; few of the people at the table spoke all three languages. Cue major brain-melting as I shifted from French to English and dipped a toe into German. I wasn’t alone either, as other people at the table were doing the same thing and suffering the same disorientation.

The moment I realise the mistake my mind grinds to a halt, as I am literally caught between two languages and not sure how to proceed. Often it is with a curse word (in either language) followed by some head-clutching.

As if two wasn’t enough, try getting caught between three languages. Franglais is one thing, Chinglish another, but whoever heard of François? Chinch? Chinçais? I.e. when I mix French and Chinese together. It’s amusing, don’t get me wrong, especially as I am not particularly proficient in either language, but it mushes my brain. Throw in English and it really does start to get ridiculous. One language needs to be decided upon in order to continue the conversation in a sane manner.

Linguists have a name for this: code-mixing. Apparently it happens alot in bilingual children who move between languages without discrimination as they are learning. So, though it might be making a fondue of my brain at the moment, I’ll choose to take it as a good sign, if I’m displaying the same traits as bilingual kids. It can only mean my French is getting better…right?

The Language Files 6: parlons anglais? Shall we speak in English?

English. Being a native English speaker feels like being in simultaneous possession of both the biggest boon and biggest bane. There’s no doubt it’s the most useful language to have on an international level, but it has also proved something of an impediment to my progress in French.

It is mind-blowing that a language I so take for granted is such an asset. Much as I am determined to master French, I know I can still work anywhere in the world simply by virtue of speaking English. My life as an exchange student here is infinitely easier with it; I can connect to a far greater range of people than with any other language, and activities involving foreign students always seem to be conducted in English. Even with those rare few who do not (really) speak it (because everyone does a bit), if I really cannot find the word in French, they will understand if I use English.

So, what’s the problem, I hear you ask? Indeed, I have no real right to complain. Yet, I do. The French-as-a-foreign-language-student in me protests. I did not go to such effort, not to mention expense (it is Switzerland after all), to uproot myself and embark on life abroad…to speak English. I did not need to leave England for that. Much as I am appreciative of the relative ease of life here thanks to having English, and I still prefer to have it than not, it will not be worthwhile having come if I do not leave fluent in French.

I count myself lucky, too. I will be here for the full school year, while a number of my friends are here for just one semester. They are already expressing concern that they have not had enough time to improve, or their progress has not been as fast as expected. I think this is a sentiment felt across the board by all my exchange buddies in all different countries. It is absolutely essential to force yourself into situations where English is not an option; much, much more easily said than done, especially with a language as pervasive as English.

Speaking English here (much like other places I’m sure) is considered “cool”. Lots of modern slang terms are English. This annoys me somewhat. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was “cool” to speak proper English and to be able to quote Shakespeare, but in fact it’s “cool” to be able to swear in English and imitate what you see in brainless blockbuster movies. The ever-invasive influence of American pop culture. Sigh.

Many words in the French language are English. I’ve already discussed this, but it actually irritates me a little. I feel it taints the language, and L’Academie Française would agree with me. I love English, but it feels wrong to be speaking it in another language; I find anglicisms frankly bizarre, almost a desecration of la belle langue francaise. I prefer to speak one language at a time. Mind you, I am the worst when it comes to speaking franglais, I do it constantly, so it’s a bit rich coming from me.

And yet. And yet most of my best friends here are English speakers and I would not trade them for any amount of French practice; I am lucky to have them in my life. Even though I do need more French practice. This is why it is both boon and bane. Pissing and moaning aside, I am still ever-grateful to be an anglophone, and to have at my disposal, to play with as I write these very words, this most wonderful, rich and accessible of languages.

The Language Files 5: You are what you speak

Much as I adore the French language, there are some things I just can’t say in French. Not because I don’t know the word, but because the word just doesn’t exist. Take “awkward” for example. Completely overused in everyday English conversation, therefore completely necessary! There is no French equivalent. Bizarre? Gênant? Embarrassant? None are quite the same.

The language we use reflects the person we are; how we see things, how we process our thoughts, how we choose to share them. Yet we are limited to the language(s) that we know, and as illustrated above, even between languages that are relatively close both geographically and lexically, there are concepts which do not translate. A French speaker told me that whilst speaking French, he would simply toss in “awkward” in English. Perhaps feeling “awkward” is something that comes with speaking English?

Your language must have an effect on the way you think. Though there are universal themes that translate in any language – love, sadness, hunger, etc., the more subtle differences surely play a role in your outlook on the world. In fact, what if there was no word for “love” in the language that you spoke – could you technically feel or understand it? Do words validate, or create, concepts?

One thing that both charms me and befuddles me in the French language is the classic question of whether to use tu or vous when addressing someone. French is not the only language to have a more “formal” form of the word “you”, but it doesn’t exist in English. Everyone is equal according to the highly democratic English “you”. In French, there is a distinction, and a vital one at that. Personally it makes me stop and think a little more carefully when I am about to speak to someone. Of course it can be a source of bother and confusion, but there is something appealing about it. Apparently in French schools, teachers switch from addressing their students as tu to vous around the age of 17. So it marks the transition from being a child to an adult, and shows respect to strangers and superiors. Does having this extra layer of etiquette alter the way francophones view others? Does that micro-pause needed to choose between vous and tu render them more cognizant of others’ status in relation to themselves? Japanese has a whole host of suffixes to attach to the end of someone’s name when addressing them, depending on your relationship with them, and that is a society dominated by status.

I’ve talked about idioms before, and they are a perfect demonstration of how a language affects perception. Idioms are unique to a language; that’s the whole point of them. There might be similar phrases in other languages (or even identical ones, as there are between French and English), but some things will never fully translate, and that’s where you have  notions entirely dependent on a given language. Keep a stiff upper lip, old boy! Translatable, probably, but that old English sentiment surely rests within those shores beyond the Channel…

What if you have multiple languages? On the whole it’s fantastic to be multilingual. Practical travel uses aside, it opens up the esprit to more than one way of understanding and conceptualizing the world, as well as other cultures and a wider range of people. But is it possible to know too many languages; do you risk losing yourself in a plethora of tongues? So much of one’s wit and personality relies on the full mastery of a language. It is also practically impossible to maintain multiple languages to the same degree; some are going to slip depending on where you are and what you’re using the most. I have bilingual buddies who could definitely attest to that.

I knew a Malaysian who could speak English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Malay, but none of them perfectly. As my French (oh-so-slowly) improves, I find myself on occasion reaching a complete mind-melting mix-up in my head, where I’m caught between two languages; sometimes three, when Mandarin is thrown into the mix. Yet English for me will always, always be the best of the three; I couldn’t imagine being caught equally between four. It’s quite an unpleasant thought, not being able to truly, properly express oneself in any one language.

So, what’s my point? I admit I’ve rather lost myself over the course of this post. I suppose I’m questioning whether one’s language(s) has an impact on one’s actual thought processes, and to what degree. Though at some basic level, all humans are the same and many concepts traverse all languages, I’d be inclined to say yes, the language you speak has a major impact on how you interpret and define the world. From every little nuance (such as not having a word for “awkward”) to the phrases that are indigenous to a language or culture, we think in words, and we can function only within the framework of the words that we know.

The Language Files 4: Language barriers, or the fear of opening one’s mouth

It is never, ever easy trying to get by in a foreign language. I become very easily frustrated with my inability to articulate things which I could bulls-eye in a second in English. Thankfully so far everyone has been very kind and patient with me, and no-one mocks my accent. A language is the first and last thing that will prevent two people from properly communicating and connecting, and it’s an uphill grind working past it.

There seems to be a real fear that one’s personality won’t come across properly in a foreign language. Of course this is true to an extent – but I find that alot of a person’s character is communicated non-verbally anyway. I think the real problem is that once people are impeded by the language, everything else follows like dominos. Facial expression deadens, body language closes up or becomes less dynamic, and one ends up feeling a rather dulled-down version of oneself. People are petrified of appearing stupid by saying something wrong in a different language. But, the way I see it, I’ll look just as stupid if I stand by dumbly and say nothing at all, so I might as well try and push out a few sentences. And the Swiss are kind.

Personally, I find the less I speak of a language the more animated I become. If I’m trying to communicate sans actual words, I use far greater eye contact, a wider range of facial expressions and of course lots of highly dignified gesticulation. I’m more inclined to smile, as if to say, “isn’t this ridiculous?” When you really can’t get your point across verbally, it is important to not give the wrong impression in every other respect. A dead look of incomprehension in the eye is not welcome anywhere in the world.

Much as there are differences between the culture here and what I know back home, the gap is not so huge that I risk shocking or being shocked. It’s still Europe. It’s not a cultural minefield of unfamiliar social mores as somewhere like Japan might be to a European. So, on the whole, it’s not been too much of a problem. Also, everyone speaks English.

Anyway, I doubt any of my francophone friends here would describe me much differently to my anglophone friends. I remain as irrepressible as ever!