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Modern Language Notes

Paris, Sun Aug 17, 2013

In a typical French sentence, 50% of the letters are not pronounced, and the other 50% are unpronounceable.  I have met people who can read French at a higher level than most native speakers, but who cannot make themselves understood in a restaurant.  This situation simply does not occur in German where writing, spelling, and pronunciation are fairly rational.

How well one is able to converse in French depends on whom one is addressing.   I had no difficulty negotiating a few matters entirely in French at the Air France office recently.   But  in a bookstore the following Saturday, August 10, I could not communicate with the young girl at the cash register, at all.   With others on the staff, who were older and better educated, I had no problem communicating in French, or even making one or two playful pleasantries.  In a recent conversation with an arrogant man of Algerian background, I felt that he was deliberately making his French as slangy and incomprehensible as he could, forcing me to speak English, so he could have the satisfaction of looking down his nose at me.  I have noted Anglicized Pakistanis in London behaving in similar manner.  Being forced to switch to English is one of the most humiliating experiences I know.  

Younger people in speaking their own languages are sometimes afraid of sounding affected or “pseudo-intellectual,” and will often avoid expressing themselves formally, because they are very self-conscious about possibly sounding “unnatural.”   A high school graduate from Senegal or Martinique is sometimes easier to understand, because educated “colonials” often speak a more elevated French than their continental European counterparts, the Franco-français.

There are several levels of any language:  For the sake of simplicity, I would list three:

1. Formal and/or literary, where words are painstakingly defined, with respect to their numerous meanings, and where qualifying clauses are frequent — appropriate for courtrooms, classrooms, good journalism, and those business affairs where precise or nuanced articulation is necessary.

2. Vernacular or colloquial, for daily conversation within families, or between persons who are “on the same wave-length,” and where a wink or a nod might suffice to clarify a more subtle meaning.

3. Folksy and/or slangy, useful for situations where words may be one-dimensional, and meanings are direct and often blunt, or when people need only to communicate cultural predispositions or emotional reactions.

I have learned that when a native speaker is addressing a foreigner, the best way for the native speaker to communicate is to adopt the formality of a college classroom. The more colloquial, familiar, or vernacular one becomes, the more difficulty the speaker of Turkish or Mandarin may have understanding.  

For example, if a friendly flight attendant asks, “Where are you off to today?”  She might be misunderstood, even by an American, due to her use of a friendly idiomatic expression.  She is likely to be more easily understood if she asks more formally, “What is your final destination?” 

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