Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Amazing Race 16, Episode 6

Wargemoulin-Hurlus (France) - Rheims (France) - Épernay (France) - Pierry (France) - Épernay (France)

Throughout their time in France in the most recent two episodes, the contestants on The Amazing Race 16 have struggled to communicate with local people, leading to a series of route-finding mistakes.

Is it really true that French people can’t, or won’t, speak English? Is it difficult to get around in France if you don’t speak French? Perhaps most importantly, what can you do to make your travels in France easier (other than, of course, learning French, or learning better French — not very useful advice if, like the racers, you only find out where you are going at the last minute)?

First, let’s be clear: if you speak English, you do not need to know any French at all to be able to get around on your own, quite happily, in France. Your kilometrage may vary, but I’ve found that to be true in provincial cities as well as in and around Paris. (I don’t know about rural regions.) French has more cognates with English than any other language, and it’s written in the same alphabet (give or take a few diacritical marks above and below the letters). So basic directional signs are pretty easy to recognize and, if necessary, to decipher with the aid of a phrasebook. Many people in France do speak and/or read some English.

In my experience — and, as we saw this week, that of the racers — most French people will make a considerable effort to communicate using whatever English they have, supplemented by the ineffable French language of hand-waving. Some of the racers were led to their next destination by good Samaritans who drove kilometers out of their way to help, and all of them were greeted at the finish line of this week’s episode by a mime who got across his welcome with gestures. My high school French is rusty, to say the least. I’m very much dependent on patience, goodwill, and extra effort from those with whom I’m dealing — but I’ve almost always gotten that consideration.

At the same time, it’s also true that a smaller proportion of people in France know English than in many other European countries, notably including all of France’s immediate neighbors. And the standards of both written and spoken English are markedly lower in France than in any of its neighbors.

It would be a cheap shot to attribute this to French disdain for foreign languages or foreigners. The French response to such an attitude from an American would be, “Who are you to talk? Fewer people study any foreign language in the USA than in any comparably wealthy country.”

But one doesn’t need to be so judgmental to find explanatory variables. In the first place, the ease of learning languages is asymmetric. French is, after Spanish, the second easiest language for a native speaker of English to learn, the second most commonly taught foreign language in US schools, and the most commonly taught in UK schools. For a native speaker of French, it’s much easier to learn one or more other Romance languages — Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian — than a language as different from any of them as English is. French people are more likely to know some foreign language than are people in the USA, but their second language may not be as likely to be English as ours is to be French. If you didn’t like learning foreign languages, and had to do so in school, would you choose one as irregular in spelling and punctuation as English, and with as large and diverse a vocabulary? And even if you had to study it, how much would you learn or retain if you didn’t use it?

Moreover, many people in France (and growing numbers in Québec) are immigrants for whom French is their second language, or one of their first two. Fluency and literacy in French are as essential to immigration to France as knowledge of English is to those who want to immigrate to the USA. And immigrants who have been the recipients of a lifetime of derision from native speakers for their imperfect or accented French can be forgiven if they occasionally take the opportunity to get back at the world by passing those attitudes on to tourists who speak worse French. That’s happened to me, but only rarely.

Both for immigrants and for their descendants in immigrant communities who want to preserve knowledge of their parents’ or grandparents’ language, English is at best a third language. But far fewer people are trilingual than bilingual. Even polyglots tend to be markedly less fluent in those languages they have studied or practiced less than in their best couple of languages. I’ve been in many places where the majority of people are bilingual, but in none where the majority are trilingual. Even those places with a substantial minority of trilingual people (Flemish people in Brussels who know Dutch, French, and English, or non-Malay people in Malaysia who know English, Bahasa Malay, and various Indian or Chinese languages) are rare exceptions.

On top of this is the special role of the French language in French national pride and status. This, too, is easily misunderstood. Every people are proud of their language, so why do the French seem to think their language is so special? Because French had, and still has, a special role in international communication, that’s why — not just within its own empire (like Latin, Portuguese, or other imperial languages), but as the first truly global lingua franca until it was displaced in that role by English.

Even today, French and English (and perhaps Arabic and Swahili) are distinguished by the fact that many times more people speak them as second languages than as first languages, and that most communication in them is between second-language speakers. That’s why they (and some other regional languages like, again, Arabic) rank much higher in my list of most useful languages for world travel than they would if I ranked languages solely on the basis of numbers of native speakers or populations of the places where they are the most common first language. At least a little basic French is probably more important elsewhere in the Francophonie than in metropolitan France, in places such as those in north, central, and west Africa where few people speak French as a native language, but most educated people know some French and far fewer know English.

Few languages other than French try to compete with English for the role of link language between speakers of other languages, and most of them do so only regionally (Arabic in the Islamic world, Mandarin in East Asia, Swahili in parts of Africa). That makes the threat English hegemony poses to French very different than the threat English poses to languages used only in their own countries or regions. French, which once had its own hegemony, has already lost this particular war with English. It’s needlessly humiliating for English speakers to rub Francophones’ noses in that fact by presuming that French people who deal with international visitors will speak English. Make an attempt to communicate in French, no matter how feeble. Let them switch to English, as they probably will, if your French isn’t up to the task and their English is better than your French.

Meanwhile on French streets and roads, Steve and Allison get into a fender-bender when, suddenly spotting the landmark they are looking for, they lose sight of one of the essential rules of driving in an unfamiliar place: For safety’s sake, the driver needs to concentrate on driving whenever the vehicle is in motion, and leave both navigation and sightseeing to the passenger(s). If the driver wants to admire the view, consult the map, or confer about the route, pull entirely off the road in a safe place and stop.

Steve is able to continue after his mishap, and is spared having to wait for a replacement car, only because at the last minute before he and Allie left on the race, his wife talked him into bringing some duct tape (“You can fix anything with duct tape”), with which he is able to bind up a damaged plastic section of the bumper so it no longer rubs against the wheel.

I’ll talk more about this next week, but first I’d like your input. Do you always bring duct tape when you travel? Is there any other item — especially a tool or fix-it supplies — that you always carry? And if so, have you ever actually needed it? Please leave a comment or send me an e-mail message completing the sentence, “I never go on a big trip without bringing…”

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 21 March 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I never go on a big trip without bringing...a basic Swiss Army knife. You never know. It came in handy when my then-girlfriend hit a deer on a Thanksgiving trip last year. I cut away the plastic bumper guard and she used extra shoelaces to hold the other pieces above the pavement 'til we could get home.

Posted by: Karl, 24 March 2010, 09:15 ( 9:15 AM)

I bring a very lightweight lock and cable to use with the lock. I use this in various ways, like locking my room when I'm out. Southern countries usually don't have locks built into doors but rather hasp type closures which can be secured with a thin cable wrapped around a few times. I also sometimes thread the cable through strap or tie downs on my back pack in such a way that one would have to damage the backpack to open it. Perhaps the most important use of the cable is locking my backpack to something else when I leave it in a guesthouse storage area for a few days or weeks.

For the lock I use a high quality luggage lock. The cable I use is an 18 inch 'seat leash', designed to keep people from stealing your bicycle seat. The idea is to have it just strong enough that it can't be broken by hand so you cover opportunistic theft, but not weighing more than a few ounces.

Posted by: Tom M, 24 March 2010, 09:42 ( 9:42 AM)

I think in any foreign country other than the English-speaking ones, a world traveler should go out of their way to learn at least the basic simple phrases related to transportation, accommodations and dining. This of course includes France if you don't know French. I would never stop to find something on a tape while I was traveling because you would take too much time or miss too much by doing so.

I have am still almost fluent in French 45 years after taking it starting in junior high school. 3 trips to France and 2 to Belgium helped. I have found the French outside Paris to be more willing to use the minimal English they have if they are not fluent in English (of course many are but decline for reasons of Gallic pride to demonstrate it because they want others to speak their language. Of course the majority of English speakers the Champagne region sees are from the U.K. who drive through the Chunnel.

Posted by: Anonymous, 24 March 2010, 10:57 (10:57 AM)

Being a fairly new mom (girls 2 1/2 and 5), the vast majority of our trips are to visit family, so anything I forget can usually be easily obtained at the local stores. However, considering the vast majority of our trips are long airplane trips (we live in Philly, my family is in Los Angeles, my husband's family is in Arles, France), "I never go on a big trip without bringing..." plenty of diapers, wipes and snacks for the kids. Oh, and paper and crayons. (Unfortunately, I do have to buy water/juice since can't bring that through security anymore.) That definitely put us in good stead when we were stuck at the Philly airport on Dec. 19 during the first big snow storm and didn't end up flying out until 9 pm the following day, then were stuck over 5 hours in Munich for our connecting flight to Marseilles.

Posted by: Jeanette Viala, 24 March 2010, 10:59 (10:59 AM)

I never go on a big trip without bringing a very little but quite complete Swiss army knife. In fact, I take it along most of the time -- it lives on my key chain (except when I'm going on a plane). I have used every tool on it more than once. On long trips, I also take a short clothesline and small clip clothespins. Edward knows all this -- I'm his mother and we've traveled together.

Posted by: Marguerite, 24 March 2010, 17:36 ( 5:36 PM)

I never go on a trip without bringing a bit of very thin, very sticky self-adhesive dacron (that's normally used to apply letters to boat sails.) Thus, it has a glue that stands up to salty water, and it holds water back. It's got a stiff paper backing that it peels off from, which means it packs flat and doesn't stick to stuff in your luggage. It can be used to repair clothes, backpacks, luggage, purses & the inside of shoes that are rubbing holes in one's feet, and to permanently fix flashlights that might fall apart, while still allowing the parts needed to move. I've also used it as a band-aid and a splint when I broke my toe one time; to tape my glasses back together that I squished; and to tape the dangling driver's side mirror back on that broke in a hit and run accident.

The weirdest item I always take along is a bit of beeswax. I use this in case a filling falls out of a tooth to plug the hole up to prevent further breakage, to cement on a cap back on that fell off and protect the nerve of a now-exposed tooth from twanging. Also handy to run along a thread when sewing something back together that has broken and to use as earplugs.

The third thing that I love to take along, (especially when camping,) is an (empty when going on the plane) tiny spray bottle. Besides being good for spot cleaning of me and my stuff, it's also handy to un-wrinkle my clothes and keep me cool when it's hot. Having a bit of water is handy also if you need to suddenly mess with contact lenses.

Posted by: Franis, 24 March 2010, 19:17 ( 7:17 PM)

"I never go on a big trip without bringing..." DUCT TAPE!! Don't bring the whole roll. Wrap some around a pencil. Yes, we've used it several times. Good to hold a curtain closed to keep our early morning sun, especially good to fix a toilet that is constantly running, patch a suitcase, mend clothing, fix a window on a bus so that it doesn't rattle annoyingly.

Second things to bring - empty Ziploc bags, a couple of clothespins are also useful for closing curtains to keep out the early morning sun.

Posted by: Edna Kelly, 27 March 2010, 14:17 ( 2:17 PM)

I find dental floss extremely useful. You can use it to tie things together and it is great for repairing cloth luggage (e.g. a backpack). The cutting device on the container is also a handy thread cutter. And you can use it to clean between your teeth, too :)

My other essential is a small flashlight. I can't count how many times I was glad to have this in a pocket of my camera bag.

Posted by: Miriam Nadel, 28 March 2010, 15:44 ( 3:44 PM)

I do always carry a bit of duct tape but seldom have used it.

What I do use all the time is my magnetic compass. Getting twisted around going through a southeast Asian market and popping out who knows where, it is helpful to be able to know the direction to the local river or main road.

I also always carry a pair of med tech scissors which serve for an amazing number of uses. Just don't have any scissors in your carry-on in Japan as they will relieve you of them in a second.

Posted by: Steve, 29 March 2010, 10:26 (10:26 AM)

I was surprised that in your discussion of using and seeking information in a foreign language you didn't emphasize the importance of asking questions in a simple and understandable way.

I travel a lot and am constantly surprised how people address their questions, oftentimes wordy and disjointed: know, I mean,... ahh... you know what I mean.A convoluted, disorganized and lengthy question gets a similar response. A tightly focused and while perhaps not grammatically correct, very simple interrogatory gets a simple and easy to understand response.

"Where Hotel du Monde?" is much more likely to get an accurate response than "Uhh, excuse me but can you tell me where the Hotel du Monde is located?"

Phrasing questions in a way that will elicit a simple and understandable response gets you where you want to go.

Thanks for all the good info.

Posted by: David Jerauld, 29 March 2010, 20:34 ( 8:34 PM)
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