I live outside of my home country and travel frequently, so communicating with others often requires me to rely on a combination of hand gestures and facial expressions, the global ubiquitousness of English, or the meager few words that I have picked up of the local language since I arrived at the airport.
My most recent trip was to Paris for a long weekend. I have never studied French outside of a couple of lessons in elementary school, which, if memory serves, mostly consisted of a call-and-response screaming match: “Comment ça va?” “BIEN, MERCI!” I knew that in Paris I would, as usual, not understand a lot of what was being said around me, but that I would find ways to muddle through.
We all have the bare-bones basics of French in our brains, placed there by osmosis through pop culture: Oui. No. Pardon. Excusez-moi. S'il vous plaît. Merci. Un, deux, trois. I hadn’t thought about these words, or purposefully called them to mind, but they were packed with me when I landed in Paris.
I realized soon after arrival how strange it felt to use the French that I’ve picked up in the ether. It felt much more odd than trying to speak in other places I have gone, where I didn’t know any words in the language when I arrived. Communicating in French somehow felt like play-acting to me. Instead of using words as words, it seemed like I was utilizing them as a form of code, and it just so happened that the other person was in on the joke with me. What was the difference?
Part of this feeling came from the fact that I was indeed play-acting: when I said to the baker, “un croissant, s'il vous plaît,” the odds were that the baker knew immediately from my accent that I was not a French speaker, and may have been able to surmise immediately that those were some of the only words I knew. I didn’t speak French, and both of us knew it. To use French, then, was a form of make-believe.
This feeling of play-acting was reinforced by my interpretation of the baker’s response as he handed me my change: “Voila!” Really?! Voila? To me, that’s what
magicians say! Do French people believe that giving change is a magic trick?
I realized then that my feeling of make-believe also came from the cultural meaning of utilizing French words as an English-speaker. Generations of Disney characters have created an image of what it means when an English-speaker uses a French accent or French word.
Doing so confers some level of sophistication, perhaps sarcastically: I think of someone being cut off in line and responding by bowing deeply and snarling, “Oh, pardon-moi, madam!” It’s utilizing French to make a point in English, not just through the words, but through the hidden, subtle, unspoken intent of expressing an idea in French while speaking English. No wonder, to an English speaker, that using French in France feels similarly like acting.
It’s that familiarity and cultural weight that makes French feel so different from going to a country like Myanmar, where I knew no words at all when I landed, but which taught me my all-time favorite word: mingalabar, which is a greeting. It’s just so mellifluous, feeling like it pours out of my mouth in a tumble of syllables and
consonants. Look at it right over there: it even looks pretty! In Myanmar, when I greeted a hotel worker with a hearty “mingalabar!” my intent was respectful, hoping to demonstrate that I at least desired to learn the basics of local culture and customs, even if there was no chance of me progressing during my short stay. There is also no cultural meaning of utilizing Burmese words in English the way there is with French. I didn’t get the same sense of play-acting there.
The difference was that in France I was actually trying to use French to communicate at a rudimentary level. The words and phrases I could use went just a half-step beyond a basic greeting, aiming at actual communication of ideas, despite the knowledge of both speaker and listener that I don’t speak French. When I went beyond a basic greeting or expression of thanks, I felt like the lie was exposed, and that my attempt at speaking was revealed just to be acting.