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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Sympathy and the odd freebie: Why you really should speak bad French

Of course everyone who moves to France is aiming to, one day, speak good French. But in the meantime blogger Natasha Alexander explains why it is vital - and sometimes distinctly advantageous - to speak bad French

Sympathy and the odd freebie: Why you really should speak bad French
I don't understand a word you are saying, Madame. Photo: monkeybusiness/Depositphotos

I often beat myself up for not being fluent after being here for nearly two years. Only the other week I left my French lesson feeling totally demoralised. I frequently come away internally wailing to myself “how am I ever going to be fluent?”

But then today, it suddenly occurred to me that there are some real benefits to speaking bad French. Really? Yes! And you never know one day I may miss these days.

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Is this Santa's brother Pierre Noel? Photo: AFP

These may not be “the lost years” after all as I like to call them. Maybe they really are the “hilarious years”. Without further ado, here’s my way of making myself feel better…

1. It’s hilarious.

Yes, I am a massive source of entertainment to my family and indeed myself.  Not only that, my husband also comes out with some right corkers which have us doubled up sometimes. We now have a back catalogue of French gaffes that often come out to visiting friends and family. 

Such as the time I called up Jardiland to ask when “Pierre Noel” was coming to town. This caused the lady on the other end to laugh so much she was still laughing when she hung up. Not only am I laughed at by my family, I also bring unexpected joy to the receiver of my bad French.

2. You get off lightly.

For example, the other day after a nearby village’s post office was raided, the police were stopping cars in our village.

The gendarmes stepped into the middle of the road and were about to stop my car when – realising where my steering wheel was – they didn’t bother. They automatically assumed they would have talk to an illiterate Anglaise and thought better of it. Result – I was able to drive off with the takings of the post office. (I’m joking if a real life gendarme is reading this).

Not only that, if the person is struggling to get where you’re coming from they might give in/ back down as they are exhausted. 

For example, my son bought some football boots – he realised that the other one wasn’t in the box when we got home. Great.

French shops are notorious for not giving you a refund or just generally not having the UK attitude that the customer is king. We drove back to the shop – in my head I’m trying to construct the whole explanation of what’s happened. 

Upon entering the shop, I tried to explain to the lady what I had conjured up in my free-style French. She was struggling with my accent and after a nanosecond she was like 'yeah do what ever you need to do'. Turns out the boot was actually at home and now we need a three-legged footballer.


Accent struggles could even score you a free football boot. Photo: AFP

3. I can embarrass my children with ease.

When we first arrived in France the children weren’t helping me out for love nor money.

They would watch me shrivel up and die in word order hell before they would even contemplate helping me out. Only after leaving places would they tell me what I had said.

But who’s had the last laugh? Me that’s who. Now they can’t bear to listen to my pronunciation. They even do the French screwed up face when I’m talking. To save them dying of shame and embarrassment they quickly ask “what do you want to say?” and then do it better.

4. You look like you’re a really good listener

I have to come clean, I am neither calm nor patient. When I talk I flit between subjects and expect the person to fully understand that we’ve moved onto and I’m talking about something else.

But here in France, you have to listen and listen hard to what’s being said. I have perfected my 'ah ha, oui, mmmm' face so much so the talker actually genuinely believes I am getting all of it.

Of course, I’m only getting 85 percent, not bad you might say, only the 15 percent is the key part and normally the most crucial. When they do cotton on to the fact that you haven’t understood much, you’ve already won them around. They quite like you, as in France it’s not considered the height of bad manners to talk over someone – it is deemed normal. 

5. People are really kind to you.

They take pity on you and go that extra mile to help you. In this instance, the English people who can’t speak French after living here for 20 years help me out massively!  When French people hear me speaking they tell me about “l’anglais” not speaking a word of French and are totally impressed with my pathetic attempts. They are then super nice and kind. 

Natasha Alexander does social media management for companies in Normandy and across France and also blogs about her move to France at Our Normandy Life. Find out more here.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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