In this series, my goal is to make you feel better about the French you can speak and to overcome your inferiority complex. I’ll try to explain why the French are so rigid about their language and how you should react like a French person would (hint: say “Merde”)!
Learn more about the cultural background
Put yourself in the shoes of your French conversation partner for a moment. That’s a classic conflict resolution technique: try to see the situation from your opponent’s perspective to get a better understanding of what’s going on and adjust your way of thinking and behaviour to avoid your emotions from “hijacking” your brain (which would result in a “freeze, fight or flight” response from your body making you lose your abilities at speaking a language for example).
Changing your mindset will result in lowering your stress level and instinctive reactions and thoughts will flow better in your brain, giving you greater fluency.
Why are French obsessed with grammar rules?
First thing you need to know: we’re taught from early on to adhere to social norms (la norme in French) for fear of being ostracized or ridiculed. It’s good to show you have personnality but if you’re overly “unique”, you will be labelled un.e original.e (politically correct word for a weirdo). “The norm” is present everywhere: the way you have to dress, what you study (good students have to study maths, latin and German then go to a “Grande Ecole””regardless of their interests in life, etc), your family life (a man-a woman-kid(s), although it’s more progressive now it’s a constant battle against a fringe of very vocal conservative French people)…
Of course it also extends to the language. During our primary school years (6-10 years old), we study grammar extensively (we, too, had to memorize the irregular verbs, including in the passé simple!) and every week we write dictées (dictations). These are often kids’ nightmare: the teacher reads a text and students write it trying to remember all the rules about spelling and verb agreements and to differentiate between homophones (words that sound similar but are spelled differently). The teacher then crosses off all your mistakes with a red pen. When I was a kid and until recently, they would even tell every student’s mark publicly in front of the class. Starting at 20 for perfect, it would sometimes end up below 0, a rather traumatizing experience for many…
In short, there’s a belief that we, French kids, had to suffer learning French the hard way so why should you, foreigners, be given a free pass?
In a typical French mind, there is a correlation between a person’s mastery of the language and their supposed level of intelligence.
There is this widespread belief that if you were not even able to learn the rules properly (especially spelling) as a kid, you’re either stupid or lazy and, therefore you can’t be trusted to conduct business with or to be given responsibilities.
A little anecdote: just yesterday I had lunch at the coworking space where I go sometimes and we ended up talking about my job. The guy thought at first I was teaching other French people to speak better French (“Much needed!” he said) and he started telling me about how sometimes he’s browsing websites where people sell second-hand items and they mention “serious buyers only”, yet they make so many mistakes when they write that you can’t take THEM seriously as sellers, he said. So, to increase your sales, make sure you proofread all your ads on Le bon coin (the French equivalent to Craigslist) before posting…
When you read comments on websites or Facebook, you’ll see so many posters belittling others because they write n’importe comment (in a random way, not following the rules), they make many spelling mistakes. In France, if you can’t write properly, most people won’t even look at what you’re saying because if you can’t write, it means you can’t think properly and your opinion is automatically invalidated.
I’m aware that at this point you might feel discouraged but I just want you to know that whoever might say you don’t speak French well might actually not be better than you… and it’s not personal, they’d say the same about another native francophone…
But if you want to have an office job in France and can’t spell, you’d better invest in a good grammar- and spellchecker (the Quebecois I know love Antidote*).
As French people we also have to be careful how we sound. One of the first thing many Provinciaux (French who don’t live in the greater Paris area) tend to do when moving to the capital city is trying to reduce their regional accent to blend in and avoid stereotypes. At least, as a foreigner you have an “exotic” accent but depending on where you come from you might have to work a little harder to improve your pronunciation.
All you need is that people can easily identify words when you speak but you don’t need to lose your accent completely*.
* Quite the contrary, if you believe the British comedian Paul Taylor who’s making a valid point in this video!
French people are rude when they correct your French or they switch to English? Maybe it’s not you, it’s them!
The “petit chef” syndrome
Petit chef is hard to translate in English. In a company, it’s usually a person in lower- to middle-management who doesn’t have much power but, using whatever little authority they may have, they boss around other employees who have a lower status than them.
Well, when you meet one of these petit chef-type personnalities, as a foreigner you’re the underling and they have the upper hand and it will make them feel better to be arrogant with you, nothing personal.
The monolingual type
Or maybe you’ll meet people who don’t speak another language and haven’t been exposed to many foreigners so they’re genuinely struggling to understand you while someone else would find it easy. So they can’t speak another language while you can have a conversation in 2 or more and they’re the ones giving you lessons? Again, it doesn’t mean you can’t speak French.
The awkward helpers
Other people might think they’re helping you by pointing your problems. Knowing the stigmas attached to not speaking perfectly, they might want to help you fix your mistakes so that people won’t think you’re stupid but they’re not doing it with empathy.
Others might want to seize the opportunity to practice their English (which, by the way, will probably be worse than your French) or to ease what they perceive as discomfort on your end.
My only advice: ignore all of them, find someone who can give you honest feedback and keep learning strategically to acquire new skills and confidence.
Embrace being a foreigner living in France!
Good news for you, dear polyglot, you’re not French! Yes, it can be an advantage!
It means you don’t have to follow “The Norm”, every step outside the beaten track might at first induce some discomfort and incomprehension from your French conversation partner but if you own it, it will just be considered “quirky” or “cute” or “so American/British/Spanish/Brazilian/ etc!” (“but that’s why you’re interesting so I’m going to keep talking to you, please come to my house for an apéro”).
Self-deprecating humour and second degré (“second degree”, a form of humour similar to irony where you say something very shocking in a specific tone so that people understand you mean the opposite) are very common in France, these are handy tools to use in uncomfortable situations but they require some practice.
Also, take advantage of the French culture of addressing problems head on by having serious conversations, do not shy away from respectfully expressing your opinion and you will be respected for standing your ground.
If you feel uncomfortable speaking French with some friends or colleagues, why not talk about it frankly with them?
Now that you’ve been in their shoes, why not invite them to be in yours?
* I’m not making any money for recommending this product, just passing on what I heard.