“Chicken happy can you monkey dance a cheese?”
“Chick-en happy can. You. Monkey. Dance. A cheese?”
“I am sorry; I do not understand what you are saying.”
I have decided that it would be hysterical to have my own English subtitles, you know, just a little screen in front of me to translate what I say in French into English. Mind you, this would not be to help other people understand me, but so that I could see what it is that I am actually saying.
Lately, I have become more confident in my abilities to speak French (generally fueled by one of those extra-long aperitifs). I speak rapidly and say multiple sentences at a time. I do that whole “thoughtful pause” that foreigners always do that makes them look so casual and smart as they try to find the right word to use. All in all, I look like the super-cool, multi-lingual expat…as long as you don’t speak French.
I remember going to Costa Rica with a friend of mine a few years ago. Her family is Costa Rican but she was raised in the U.S.
“Wow,” I told her. “Your Spanish is so good!” To me she sounded like a local.
She laughed. “That is only because you don’t know what I am saying.”
It is the same for me here in France. If you don’t speak a lick of French and you hear me conversing you might think, “Wow, she has really got a handle on the language”; however, if you are French and you hear me speak French you will probably think “quoi?”
For example, I know the word for “good” and I know the word for “walk” but I didn’t know that when you put them together they don’t mean “good walk” but instead mean “cheap”. These types of little confusions combined with my tragic pronunciation are why I often find myself staring into the baffled faces of French people. They try to be nice and pretend they know what I am saying, but having been the foreigner for so long, I know what those smiling nods mean.
Maybe I should start asking trick questions to see if my sentences are coming out right:
“So, you love American food?” I will ask in French.
“Oui, absolutement” they will reply, giving me an encouraging smile.
BUSTED! Clearly no French person would ever say such a thing.*
Or maybe I could try…
“While the French make some decent wine, Americans wines are much better, yes?”
“Ah oui, d’accord.”
DOUBLE BUSTED! Come to think of it, this could become a rather entertaining little game.
But then again, is it such a bad thing for people to placate you? Is it so horrible that they want to encourage instead of discourage? It’s good to be given some motivation to keep trying, to have people pretending through the sentences they don’t understand so that they can piece together the ones that they do. Of course, it would be nice to know whether I am asking if they enjoy the flavor of the fromage or if I am saying “happy chicken can you monkey dance a cheese”; but I guess I’ll just have to wait for the subtitles.
*Not only would a French person never say that they loved American food, they would be utterly confused as to what was meant by American food. My repeated experience has been that most of them think that everyone in America eats cheeseburgers three times a day.