On an afternoon out with a one of our recent visitors, we were walking down the street speaking in English. At one point, we wandered by a group of young men, all speaking in French, as we got close, one of them said, quite loudly, “Hello! How are you?” We smiled back but kept walking. Later, we walked by an elderly gentlemen who was looking out his window, he was speaking to someone in the back of the house in French, but just as we passed, I heard a distinct “Hello!” I said “Hello” back and smiled; he seemed satisfied.
This is a scenario that happens often. If I am wandering the market with an English-speaking friend, the vendor might give me the price in English or say “thank you” instead of “merci”, even though I will speak to him in French. Once, when I was standing in the line for the fromagerie with another Anglo, the young man in front of us turned around and explained every cheese that we should try and why…in perfect English.
This rarely happens when I am alone, even though it will be obvious that I am definitely an English speaker (maybe it’s a kind of tough love?); but when I am with other Anglos, it happens all the time. I can imagine the conversations with their friends after we walk by…
“What? You didn’t know I speak English. I mean, doesn’t everyone speak English? Mon dieu, the English can speak English so you know it cannot be hard.”
We walk by again.
“Hello,” waving wildly at us. “I am fine, yes friends, good day!”
We smile awkwardly and keep walking.
”See?” He will say this to his friends. “I told you!”
Another visitor in from out of town was at the market on her first day in France. She was standing in a crowded stall and at some point another patron gave her a gentle nudge so as to pass by on the aisle.
“Oh – sorry! ‘Scuze! Uh crap, pardon,” she said, alarmed. She couldn’t quite remember the exact phrase and I could tell she was a bit unnerved by it.
The elderly man who had nudged past smiled kindly and professed, quite loudly, “you’re welcome!” And then went on to choose his vegetables, looking extremely pleased with himself. I could practically hear his internal thoughts, “nailed it!”
This exchange made me laugh and my friend looked utterly confused. The man had no idea what he had actually said but he knew it was English and that was enough for him.
I know the reasons for these little tidbits of English being thrown around. Mainly it is people excited to have the opportunity to practice speaking or in the case of the young men, excited to try to chat some girls up (…that’s right, ego, I said it) but it doesn’t really matter what the reason is; it always feels good and it always makes me smile. When you are in a foreign country, hearing a bit of your mother tongue is sort of like someone winking at you or saying “cheers” without actually saying it. It’s an unsolicited “you’re welcome” when you haven’t yet said “thank you”.