Linguistic Adventures in Frenchland

I enter the Social Security building and search for the Health Insurance section. As a foreign worker, I’m required to enroll in and pay into France’s national health coverage plan. The building is full of people waiting in front of screens that emit a “ding!” every few minutes to indicate the number that is being served at the counter. I search for the little machine that distributes the tickets with the numbers but don’t see it. I shyly ask a random woman seated in front of Counter #12, who kindly but unsmilingly points out the obvious Welcome Desk near the door that I had walked by upon entering the building.

I approach the desk and explain that I need a ticket to talk to someone about enrolling in the health insurance plan and I’m handed card #357 which means there are eleven people in front of me. Pleased with my linguistic success but a little embarrassed about walking by the desk the first time, I join the groups of people in front of the screens and rehearse what I am going to say in French at the counter. It’s a familiar exercise: whenever I’m in line, whether I’m at the train station or a restaurant, I do “the rehearsal.” I also do it on the way to the secretary’s office at school when I have a question about my schedule, or while waiting for French friends to arrive at my apartment for dinner.

I start by memorizing the lines then agonize slightly about whether one word or conjugated verb form sounds more polite, or more convincing, or just more correct.

I’m at a level in French where I could obviously think of those sentences off the top of my head without going through several minutes of “rehearsal,” but it helps my confidence and it’s a habit from the days long ago when stringing together sentences of more than six words made my head hurt.

It also relaxes me enough to be sure that I’ll understand the speaker. Listening too hard can completely cloud my understanding.

Not understanding can be stressful, if even for a few seconds. When I miss a few words or a sentence I get a bit nervous and in a split second I weigh the risk of asking for a repeat. This can have several outcomes:

1. I ask for a repeat, understand the second time, and thus only feel 50% embarrassed about my bad French.

2. Risk nodding and pretending I understand, which results in either a) Success! The speaker believes that I understand and keeps talking, usually allowing me to guess the meaning based on the words that follow. 0% embarrassment. Or b) They repeat what they said because they had actually asked me a question the first time and got no answer, and are thus sure that I didn’t understand the first time and am faking it, resulting in 100% embarrassment.

But there is always “The Joke Trap,” where, in a group of friends, everyone laughs at what the speaker just said. Things get complicated here. Sure, I sometimes ask for a repeat, but as I don’t understand 50% of jokes in French (especially the puns or “inside jokes” of a group of friends), that could get repetitive. So I’ve found some other strategies:

1. If seated at a café, I take a long sip of my drink, head bowed slightly to conceal whether I’m smiling or not, until the laughter subsides.

2. If not seated at a café, I pretend to be absolutely fascinated by the television in the background, a flyer announcing a strike, an imaginary passerby, a dog sniffing the table leg… whatever it takes to pretend I didn’t hear the joke in the first place and that’s why I didn’t understand!

As is the case in 99% of situations, my “rehearsal” stress at the health insurance office is all for nothing: the woman at the counter understands me perfectly. Half of what I rehearsed was useless anyway, since she understands my situation and has an answer long before I finish my speech.

Between successful French conversations, receiving my national health insurance number, and observing that even several French people are asking around about where to get a ticket, I leave the building feeling a little more French than usual.

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1 Response to Linguistic Adventures in Frenchland

  1. Larivière says:

    C’est impossible de comprendre toutes les blagues ou jeux de mots d’une autre langue et il n’y a pas à en rougir… J’ai connu une amie anglaise parlant très bien le français mais qui se désespérait, à tort, de ne pas comprendre toutes les plaisanteries et allusions du “Canard enchaîné” !
    Mission quasi impossible même pour un français…

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