French. The difficulties of language learning.


Your ability to communicate in a foreign language does not simply depend on your prowess with the language.  It also depends on the ear of the listener.  Like giving directions – some people are good at giving them and others are not, but also some people are good at listening to and absorbing them, and others are not.

Bruce and I, several, years ago, went past a shop window here in France, in which a very smart shirt was on display.  We stepped in to the shop and the assistant, a young lady in her late twenties, instantly spotted – disaster! – foreigners!   At 6’4″ nobody mistakes Bruce for a Frenchman and, although by UK (and US, Aussie, whatever) standards, I am average height, by local French standards I am tall.  You could almost see her thinking ” I-don’t-speak-English-I-cannot-understand-what-shall-I do ?!!!!”

“Bonjour,” I said to her in my Good French with my Good Accent, “nous aimerions voir cettte chemise …” and I pointed.

The girl looked terrified.  Looking at Bruce and then back to me, she asked in very slow and careful French:

“Pour …  Monsieur?”

“Oui,” I replied, “il aimerait essayer …”

“Non!” she exclaimed, “non!”  And she shook her head in case I didn’t get it.  “Non, Monsieur … est … grand … GRAND!” and she held her hand up in the air to indicate height.

“En effet,” I smiled, “mais vous avez bien une grande taille, je suppose?”

She shook her finger at me, ignoring what I said.  She pointed to the window, and still in her slow-and-oh-so-careful French she said:

“Chemise … CHEMISE ? … petite.  PETITE !!! ”

She was a good example of somebody who just does not LISTEN to what the foreigner is saying.  They take it as a foregone conculsion that they will be unable to understand.  She had not twigged that I spoke good French and also, in view of her pointing out that Bruce is big and the shirt was small, seemed to think I was mentally challenged too.

A similar thing happened to a friend in La Rochelle – the same friend who learnt her phone number off my heart (see previous blog  She went in to a shop and asked for a baguette.  It was a bakery, and how many different ways are there of pronoucing baguette?  But the woman at the counter just could not understand.

“Une baguette, s’il vous plait,” said Denise.


“Une baguette ?  Un baguette ?  La Baguette ?  JE VOUDRAIS une baguette?  Je voudrais UNE BAGUETTE. ”

But no.  The woman at the counter was completely unable to understand.  She was not listening and, is so often the way when it is something simple, was doubtless looking for something vastly more complicated.  The problem was not Denise’s accent, it was the other woman’s ear.

Did you know ? …

les arretes – fish bones, otherwise bones are les os

je n’en reviens pas – I can’t get over it

je ne vous derange pas plus que ca – I won’t waste any more of your time

la vache ! – OMG!

ma puce – my little one, also mon petit choux

repulsif – insect spray

une nuit blanche – a sleepless night

parler petit-negre – to baby-talk somebody

un faire-part – an announcement card

j’en ai marre – I am sick of it

Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist.  Her books are available on Amazon and Kindle, or can be ordered from most leading book stores and libraries.  For more about Catherine Broughton, to include her entertaining blogs and sketches, go to

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Posted on 22/06/2013 by Catherine
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