Untying my tongue

BY YAEL KOHEN
Je ne sais quoi
Published February 14, 2002

So I hear Americans are finally wising up and realizing the importance of learning foreign languages. That"s great.

But from where I am sitting right now, at an outdoor caf sipping caf au lait in the south of France, I say to myself: Maybe everyone really does speak english.

Many French see Americans in France as an opportunity to practice their English. This conflicts with the idea that we Americans have that we are there to practice our French.

So let me start the message by saying don"t come to France to learn French. Come to France once you have attained a level of French that you could attain only by living in France. Doesn"t make very much sense, does it? Well that is the truth that many of us find here.

And from what I hear, this problem is not particular to France. All over the world Americans who study and travel in an attempt to learn the country"s language are faced with the same challenge.

The Academie Francaise is a French institution designed to protect the French language from those hideous anglicisms in an attempt to keep their language pure. Well I have news for the Acadamie Francaise: I"m not sure if the French even like to speak French.

Let me give you a scenario: Ordering off a menu in a restaurant. Now, even if one is not studying the language, ordering off a menu is not one of the more complex tasks in French (or any language for that matter) but nonetheless, the waiter insists on moodily taking the order in English. Of course, determined to persist, I ask for the salade de chevre chaud.

"Yes, would you like a drink with that?" the waiter asks me in English as I cower in my seat as locals leer like I"m one of those ugly American tourists.

"Une carafe d"eau," I insist.

"Thank you," he says because the French "merci" would obviously be too difficult for me to comprehend.

Maybe he thinks he"s helping

From what I hear, I should be taking this insistence to speak English as a compliment. After all, only several years earlier I heard many people recount horror stories of being snubbed by the French when they were unable to speak the language.

Well, things have certainly changed.

Now of course, for all students of language, this problem hinders the learning process. Once I have finally convinced the waiter (or anyone for that matter) to speak in French, I am wary of asking questions if I don"t understand in fear that they will revert back to English.

Once I even ended up with a plate of cow testicles for a meal because I misunderstood an arrogant waiter, who was just waiting for me to screw up.

Then of course there is the accent: If you don"t get the pronunciation right the first time, they stubbornly scrunch up their noses, looking at you as if you were speaking gibberish, with barely an effort to understand.

And then of course, we start all over again in English.

I would recommend a phonetics class for anyone studying a foreign language. The French accent is not so easy and although I don"t speak Arabic or Chinese, I can assure you those languages have sounds that are not easy to pronounce either.

As Americans, we have been lucky enough to grow up speaking the lingua franca, but at the same time this notion has hindered us from going foreign.

And once abroad, I realized that learning foreign tongues is more than just overcoming Americans barriers. It"s also overcoming obstacles in a distant foreign land once we have already taken on the challenge.

Eventually, once you have proven yourself, it is inevitable that your foreign counterparts will appreciate the effort you have made. (After all, if they wanted to practice their English that badly they could always go to the United States or England.)

But it is true that the road will be difficult.

In France, if you want to practice your French, better find a German, they certainly want to practice French but if you want to practice German, you might finally get the chance to speak to a Frenchman after all.

Yael Kohen is a Daily columnist writing from Aix-en-Provence, France. She can be reached at yael_kohen@hotmail.com.