Thursday, 29 September 2016

Funny French Situation

I'm not much into talking about personal things in a permanent support, but this is pretty funny and I think it deserves to be published here.

First, I'm deeply ashamed for my lack of French spoken skills. I like this country a lot and I always talk about how immigrants must assimilate, but I'm very bad with languages (you can notice my crappy English just by reading this blog) and French is particularly difficult. Indeed for me it's almost like 2 languages, as the way you pronounce has nothing to do with what you write. Its written form is pretty complex (even more than Spanish), but the spoken form is just like quantum physics to me (its phonetics is so rich, and much more when your native reference is a language with such simple phonetics as Spanish).

The thing is that SNCF (the railways company) owes me 40 euros since 6 months ago, when their payment passarelle crashed just in the middle of purchasing some tickets. I first went to their offices, they asked me to call some number, then I was redirected to a mail address. After 6 months of waiting, and a last angry email, the guy told me that he could not do anything else, that he had created an incident months ago and if I had not received my money I should call another number.

So I called that number (expecting to ask one colleage to translate for me when they answered). It was the typical mess of "press 1 if... press 2 if..." I suddenly heard a nice "press X for English Service", great!

I was welcomed by a female voice (FV), and the conversation went like this:
FV: Bonjour, qu'est ce que je peux faire pour vous? (Hello, what can I do for you?).
Me: Bonjour, eh, do you speak English?
FV: A bit
Me: Ah, OK, mais, c'est le English Speaking Service?
FV: Oui, mais c'est la France!
From that point on the conversation continued in a mix of English and French, but the girl seemed not particularly willing to help.

So the thing is pretty funny and bizzarre. As I've said I'm deeply ashamed for my pitiful French skills and I would accept that after all this time being here some French people were angry with me for this. Indeed I think I really deserve a kick in my lazy ass for it... but well, if I call to the "English Speaking Service" of a huge company I expect to talk to someone that speaks English!!! This reminds me that months ago, when calling the first number that they had given me at that time, I ended up in the "English Speaking Service" talking to a girl that seemed to speak Italian!!!

This said, when I go to buy tickets directly to the station, the guys/girls there are always pretty helpful and nice. They'll smile to my clumsy attempts to speak French and we will end up speaking "Franglais" :-)

I think there are certain misconceptions (at least I had them) regarding the French people and foreign languages. There are more people that can speak English (mainly among younger generations) than I expected (and in Southern France many people can speak some, or even quite good, Spanish) and there is not a general rejection to speaking a foreign language, people will try depending on their knowledge (but yes, unfortunately many people just can't cause they never learnt). I guess the reason for this "never learnt" is a mix of several factors. In the past (as in Spain) the level at school was very minimum, so you should learn on your own (paying an academy, self-learning...). As it used to happen in Spain, if you didn't need it at work, you coud just get by without it. French (like Spanish) has a big enough community of speakers that most films or books you can be interested on will have been translated, and in the past people did not travel abroad so much. I guess for some people the idea of the lost of importance of French before English also caused a certain and reasonable rejection.

The interesting thing is that with the Brexit on one side and my lack of appreciation for the USA, I'm starting to question this idea of "English as the universal language". Unfortunately, I think there is no easy solution to this. What other "lingua franca" should we use in the EU? French, Spanish, German, Italian? So far I'd never seen much sense in using an "artificial language" like Esperanto, but well, maybe this could be the solution for future generations in order to talk a common language that is not "the language of 'the others'".

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