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)