Language: France vs. Greece

April 23, 2007

This entry is sure to be perceived by some as a complaint, but it isn’t. I considered not writing it, but in the end decided that it is a valid observation. A person thinking about living in France or moving to Greece might need to know.

“I just want you to understand that I wouldn’t normally do this, but I happened to be sitting next to the gentleman you were speaking to and he asked if I spoke English.”

We were trying to find out what was wrong with our internet connection, 27 hours old and already broken. The customer service rep was disapproving, to say the least.

We’ve had a bit of a language challenge. Firstly, R has turned out to know a lot more French than he ever let on, and he thankfully remembers it. But he has a hard time understanding spoken French, probably owing to the fact that he learned French by reading. I, on the other hand, seem to have retained only the ability to say day names and numbers. I can, however, understand a great deal of what is said to me. I’m glad to skip that tedious step where a new language just sounds like an impossibly long, unbroken string of syllables. Even if I don’t know the word, I can understand what was said and look it up later.

The end result of this is that we tag team communicate. R talks, the other person responds, I translate this into English for R, and we start over. Although it’s ridiculous, it works – at least in person. But this telecom conversation was happening over the phone which totally messed with our technique.

The thing is, everyone here insists on speaking French all the time! How spoiled do I sound? Right, and I know we’re in France. And I know that if everyone speaks French to us, we’ll learn quicker. But at that moment, we were just trying to find out what happened to our desperately needed, long awaited, hard earned internet connection. I had struggled along with a very nice customer service guy for several minutes, managing to explain that the problem began at 7pm, and I was able to give him our account details. All in French. But when he started to talk, I didn’t understand what he was saying. This is when he handed off the phone to his English speaking neighbor and I handed the phone over to R.

By comparison, Crete was a cake walk. Well before the end of our two year stay, I spoke only Greek to Greeks. One thing the Cretans we met seemed to ‘get’ was that when speaking to an immigrant who obviously might not understand, it helps to slow down, use small words, and gesture. This is not the case here in France. Even when I have obviously struggled to come up with ‘hello,’ they proceed at full speed and don’t skip any words. They speak to me as if I’d just spoken fluently to them.

In Crete, R handled all of our many, many, many internet and telephone issues. He was able to do this because in Crete, there’s always someone who speaks English. Perhaps it’s because Crete’s economy depends so heavily on tourism (though France is sustained by quite a lot of tourism also.) Perhaps it’s because Greek hasn’t been a lingua Franca. Whatever the reason, there is a vast difference in the willingness to speak English. I don’t think it is a difference in ability. In Menton, we were watching a French quiz show which posed the question, “what percentage of (French) students take English as their primary foreign language?” The answer was 96%. In which industries are these 96% working?

In the long run, this won’t present any problem, as we will speak French. Perhaps these differences account for the hoards of expats on Crete who, despite living there for years, still don’t speak Greek at all.

After giving his disclaimer (perhaps reprimand), the English speaking customer service rep at France telecom explained that there was a problem with the service in a large area which would be fixed around midnight. R thanked him and promised to speak better French by the next time we called.

There are many, many frustrations which come with any move, even if the move doesn’t take you to a new country. Language can be one of them. Still, je ne regrette rien (except perhaps waiting so long to make a move we knew we needed to make).



  1. You at least remember the names of the weekdays – I can only say, “I speak French like a Spanish cow.” Not of much use, except to explain my lack of ability.

    Je parle le français comme une vache espagnole.

  2. Perhaps part of the reason that the French don’t slow down: I remember reading that native speakers of French show structural differences in the brain. IIRC, the differences had to do with the perception of syllabication — native French-speakers don’t perceive the syllables as distinct entities. The initial sound of the next syllable is part of the current syllable for them.

    I, of course, perceive reality as a series of assertions without attribution. I wish I were half as good at remembering where I heard it, and to whom I’ve already said it, as I am at remembering the factoids.

  3. Nice with the Piaf ref. 🙂

  4. I’ve heard something about the differences in hardwiring of native French speakers being the reason why non-natives will never, ever speak French like a Frenchman. Maybe I heard it from you?

    Also, R comments that he didn’t let on that he knew so much French because he was unaware that he knew so much French.

  5. Which is basically true. I never studied it and never spoke it but I did read hundreds of books. Moliere (all his plays IIRC) Maigret, Robbe-Grillet, Camus, Balzac, Hugo, Zola, Maupassant (Boule de Suif) Le Grande Meaulnes, Borniche, Duras, Beauvoir – don’t ask me how I did it because I don’t know. I just did it. As for being able to pronounce things: same thing. It’s like acting – you ‘get into it’ and the linguistics suddenly are consistent and make sense.

    Now the Belgians do not speak French as fast as the French. Watch a French show like Entrentien where they typically discuss literary things and you’re totally lost. In Belgium you can almost understand them. My theory was always the French spoke so fast because they didn’t want foreigners and tourists to understand them. And they’re ferociously proud of their language: they have the Academie Francaise to preserve the language. Finally they don’t have much experience with foreigners not speaking their ‘lingua franca’: if two foreigners from different countries meet on a street in Paris and they speak different languages, they’ll ask each other if they can speak French.

    And the pastries are great so it’s worth learning anyhow.

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