Expat Story: The struggle to mingle en Francais

Expat Story: The struggle to mingle en Francais

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American expat Jeralynn Benoit reveals the all-too-familiar frustrations of plunging into French culture tongue-tied and silenced by language barriers.

I have always been a communicative person. When I lived in the US I worked in advertising sales for 25 years.

Now suddenly, after 52 years of life, I´m settled in a country were everyone around me is speaking a language I don’t understand. I´ve always loved eavesdropping on conversations, and now I can’t understand a word. I am on the outside looking in, and what I see is like observing a Tower of Babel.

It’s strange being in this situation. When you don’t understand, your sense of hearing becomes muted and other senses become more acute. Especially your sense of sight, it’s as if this sense reboots.

What you can’t hear, you observe and look for other signs. You observe people’s expressions, then shake your head, smile and say, "Ah bon" or "Oui". All the time you hope that you’re agreeing with something nice, but If they gesture or speak in a gruff way it’s an emphatic "Pardonnez-moi."

I remember when I first started glancing at online French news with my husband, I’d examine the screen for clues to make sense of the segments. I think to myself, What is going on in this picture? What are they doing? Where do they seem to be? Are they speaking strongly or laughing?

When I can’t figure it out I create my own story. I think, Nice outfit, who cut her hair? I wish I knew her coiffure. I wonder if she lives in Paris.

And then there is the other side of the coin, like, Why would anyone pick that to wear? Boy, that outfit is a bit risqué for TV. That newscaster has such big ears.

On occasion we have guests for dinner. Many of them speak some English, but they are French in France so they are going to speak Francais. Pourquoi pas (why not)?

I try hard to listen and pick up on the conversation. Ah, I recognise that word. Now what was the verb and what tense? Okay, I can comment on that. But by the time I get the words in proper order our guests are on to another subject.

So I sit mute and with a stupid smile on my face. Until the all-time excuse for escape comes into my head. I know, I’ll excuse myself and abscond to the kitchen to see about dinner. That always works well.

While we are eating I chew, I smile, and sometimes I nod my head but I haven’t a clue what’s going on. Imagine how hard this is as a person who loves to communicate and who has opinions. They must think my husband married a mute! They are so wrong! There is a person behind this smile. She's intelligent. She has opinions. She's funny.

By the end of the evening I am so tired from serving dinner and trying to listen and comprehend that eventually I just tune out. I am underwater hearing only the vibrations of sound, and the brain has flat-lined.

Now, after six years, my vocabulary has improved.  I understand more and I can get by day to day, however the art of conversation continues to be difficult. Maybe it’s because I started learning a language at a later age than most.

But I am determined to stick French and continue to cram my head with grammar, new vocabulary, and idiomatic expressions. I will triumph, even if they have to bury me with a French dictionary.

Ironically there is a stranger sensation: When I travel back to the US it’s like someone turned up the volume. I think to myself, My God, I understand these people. I know what they are saying, but these people are so loud!

Are they really loud? Maybe us Americans tend to be louder. All I know is that I am no longer on the other side of the window looking in. I am among the milieu. I am among the living.


Jeralynn Benoit / Expatica

Jeralynn Benoit is an American expat living in France for ten years.the last 10 years. You can read about Jeralynn’s adventures on http://wwwcultureculturaldifferencescom.blogspot.com/

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1 Comment To This Article

  • Anne ROUCH PT posted:

    on 10th September 2010, 17:31:15 - Reply

    Just wanted to say that I can identify with you a lot. You have expressed exactly how many of us feel.

    I lived here for 12 years and the more I understand French, the more phrases