October 10, 2011
On arriving in Paris, No.1 on the lengthy to-do list (in between museum visiting and restaurant testing, bien sûr) is deciphering the elision-liaison-silent-letter-filled waves of French flying from left, right and center.
Before setting foot (or even a single toe) on Parisian soil, I had already been vigorously drilled with irregular verbs and I’d skimmed the pages of iconic authors like Sartre. Bref, I was quietly confident that my carefully acquired knowledge would serve me well in my quest to be truly Parisienne. This confidence has since been shaken AND stirred more times than I can remember.
Just hours into my Parisian experience, my linguistic talents would hurtle against their first obstacle of the viticultural kind. As I tried in vain to order red wine, I never imagined that my inability to distinguish the ‘u’ and the ‘ou’ in rouge would have such drastic consequences…
Following two years of linguistic battering, here’s my advice:
1.) Take risks. You’ll make mistakes (but so do the French). Living in Paris, you’ll learn to laugh at yourself. Arriving directly from a year in Spain, I’d happily use my own invented French-ised version of the Spanish verb ‘pisar’ (to trample) when I accidently stood on people. That is before I cottoned on the fact that ‘pisser’ had a very different (and far more obvious) meaning in French.
The moral of the story? Be creative but ready to laugh – the French find it charmant!
2.) Accept criticism. Parisians set very high standards for foreigners but also for themselves (hence the popularity of dictations and clubs d’orthographe – yes, spelling clubs whose members gather to conjugate verbs). The long road to perfection is rocky and pot-holed with put downs and judgement. I have a Parisian friend who thinks that 4am in a bar is the perfect moment to correct my use of the pluperfect!
The lesson? Choose your friends carefully and toughen your skin until it has a leather-like quality.
3.) Beware of the argot. It’s official, the French love their slang. When you step out into the street your trusty dictionary is powerless against this fast-flowing, contraction-ridden patois. My favourite is verlan where the syllables of a chosen word are inversed: femme becomes meuf and énervé (annoyed) becomes véner.
Recipe to successful DIY verlan: add/remove last vowel, cut in two & inverse. Only for the advanced.
To sum up, if you want to feel chez toi in Paris it’s essential to be able to chatter with the natives. It takes guts, it takes time and it takes a good dose of self-derision, but it’s well-worth it for that heart lifting, ‘c’est pas vrai, you can’t possibly be anglophone, English speakers don’t do French.’
- Victoria’s tips on making small talk in France
- David Lebovitz talks about avoiding mistakes when ordering food
- Adapting to Paris 101 from Lost in Cheeseland
Written by Victoria Wall
Following hours of foreign dictionary studying at university and a tapas-and-cerveza filled year in Madrid, Victoria decided it was high time to put her French and la belle vie Parisienne to the test. This Brit from near-London initially worked as an enthusiastic-yet-underpaid English teacher and has now become a translator-copywriter-community manager for a French website. Two years after arriving in Paris, she has had ample opportunity to fall amoureuse with every single arrondissement of the city of love and light, from picture postcard Montmartre to the winding backstreets of the almost provincial 20ème.