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Learning to speak French - Misadventures in a Foreign Tongue

Please dye my bottom dark.... I have too many grey horses...

A trip to the Hairdressers

Sitting in the hairdresser's chair, one month after moving to France, I was in the middle of a full blown panic attack. The colourist was approaching (I knew this because she wore an apron proclaiming herself "Coloriste") and I had no idea how to explain what I wanted her to do with my hair.

Mind goes blank

The last time I had my hair done it was easy. How hard could it be in France? This is, after all, the home of the 'Coiffeur'. Pasting a smile onto my face, which I fondly imagined gave me an air of confident authority, I looked at the girl. Standing at my shoulder, she smiled sweetly, and a string of utterly incomprehensible words issued from her lips. "Um" , I said, apparently hoping to impress her with my linguistic skills. Puzzled, she repeated herself….or, perhaps she said something entirely different, such as; "Speak to me you lunatic!" The result, however was sadly the same. Total incomprehension. Even my schoolgirl vocabulary from thirty years ago, had jumped ship.

Having a go

Gathering my wits, which had been scattered to the four winds, I summoned all the remnants of French I could, and came up with a somewhat startling request, which apparently roughly translated as the following: "Please could you dye my bottom dark". At this point my confidence increased. Certain I was on the right track, I elaborated; "Because I have too many grey horses". The girl backed away, her face a study in shocked disbelief. The comfortable hum of chatter, which had pervaded the atmosphere of the hairdresser's shop as it does anywhere in the world, dried to a trickle, and faces turned enquiringly to me.

Stiff upper lip

I kept the polite English smile pasted on my face, but inside I was starting to crumble. The laughter was building around the shop... no one spoke English, so no one was able to explain my mistake, and it wasn't until some weeks later that I really understood my mistake. Fortunately, the 'coloriste 'applied the dye to the underside of my hair rather than my posterior, and my grey horses were correctly understood to be grey hairs, and treated accordingly. A literal application could have been amusing , though... and I'm not at all sure what my one grey horse, at home in the paddock, would have made of it !

Regional difficulties

Having moved to live in the Languedoc, literally meaning 'The Language of the Oc', we were always aware we hadn't picked the easy option. Here you don't only have French to contend with (and the Lord knows that can be hard enough) but also a powerful local accent; Occitane (the ancient language peculiar to Southern France) spoken still by some of the older inhabitants; and occasionally some Catalan creeping in to confound the unwary. Confused? You will be...

Easier for some than others

My hairdressing difficulties, however, pale into insignificance beside the linguistic battles faced by my gallant husband. As a dyslexic Geordie, he was always going to be up against it when it came to learning a foreign tongue, something he had understandably avoided at school. "Whye aye! Wearyugannintaythedeelikehinny?" (not quite the International phonemic alphabet, but you get the idea). It just didn't have the same effect here as back in the good old freezing cold North East of England, and actually appeared to be as incomprehensible to the majority of Brits living here as to the French.

Hello again

One evening my husband arrived at the dinner table wearing a bewildered expression. "Why do the French say hello at least ten times throughout every conversation?" He asked. The kids and I were flummoxed. It wasn't a phenomena we had met, and God knew, between us we had met a few since our arrival in France, and during our attempts at integration into the social and school scenes here.
"Hello?"
"Allo," he replied, warming to his theme. "They say it at the beginning of every conversation, then several times throughout. I know they're polite people, but this is ridiculous! I have to say it back to them every time too, so as not to look rude, but it doesn't half string out the conversation!" It wasn't until he pronounced the word "Allo" that realisation dawned. "Allo", in Geordie, equals "Alors"... I'd love to have been a fly on the wall at some of these exchanges!

Wise advice - not often followed!

One of the soundest pieces of advice given to people considering a move to France is to learn to speak French. Well, yes, But how long do you have, and how old are you? There is a direct correlation between your age and your ability to pick up a new language, and it gets harder the older you get. This is not news but most of us do not have the luxury of a couple of years intensive "Language therapy" before we begin our new lives 'en France'.

A realistic alternative

Therefore, I would advocate a more practical approach. Yes, arrange for French lessons before you leave England if you can, and certainly take lessons when you arrive, as an ongoing process. In fact all the received wisdom is pretty much on the button, you do need to talk to French people, involve yourself where you can in local life and so on, it's just that it is damned hard! Fluency doesn't happen overnight, even for the young and bright. You need a contingency plan.

Get stuck in

Develop a sense of humour if you didn't already have one, and prepare to use it more frequently than you thought possible. Misadventures in a foreign tongue can be as entertaining as any other dinner party anecdotes! Learn to love your mistakes... and learn from them too!

your questions...

1. Some questions about moving to the Languedoc (added 2/12/14)...

Hi - it was good to read through your experiences and views about life in France. I was pleased to learn that you are from the north of England and moved to the Languedoc. I am looking to buy a property in Axat. Could you please advise me as to:

a) Should I fix an exchange rate because I believe it takes quite a long time for the transaction to go through?
b) My husband and myself are retired - would we have to pay pay income tax if we are already paying it here in England?
c) Is the weather in that region good through the year?

If you have the time I would appreciate a reply. Thank you.

Our reply...

Thanks for contacting us. My colleague will no doubt be very pleased that you are thinking of buying property in the Languedoc. Indeed we have many articles about the region on our site, which I hope have been of interest to you. If you haven't read them, perhaps you could start with "Languedoc-Roussillon Property - an insider's guide" (http://www.frenchpropertylinks.com/essential/lang-roussprop.html). (For the others, just enter "Languedoc" in the search box and you will be able to access them.)

I would suggest you contact a currency broker/foreign exchange specialist, for expert advice on exchange rates when buying property, and a tax advisor about your income tax, as I am unable to expertly advise on either issue. (I understand though that if you become one of the many British people who have financial interests in France as well as in the UK, there is a tax treaty between France and Britain which avoids the paying of double taxes. If you pay tax in Britain on your British interests, the French tax office will issue a tax credit for that amount so that you do not have to pay twice.)

Regarding the weather, you may like to read the following articles we have on our site:

Weather in France (http://www.frenchpropertylinks.com/essential/weather-france.html)
The Winds of France (http://www.frenchpropertylinks.com/essential/winds-france.html)

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