Parlez vous Français?

Un peu…

…is generally my answer to that question. I should speak more than just a little, and if I am honest I do. But it frustrates me that over two years after arriving in Geneva, I am far from fluent.

My children are trilingual – English, French, German and are handy as translators occasionally but I don’t always have them with me. It frustrates me that my French is so bad. I have noticed in recent weeks that people seem to think that I understand more than I do – possibly because I smile and nod a lot, and because I get the gist of the conversation so can answer (to a point) their questions.

When I was 19 years old, I moved to Germany to work as an au-pair. Within two years my German was fluent enough for me to apply and be accepted for an apprenticeship (Ausbildung) in sales. This meant working in sales, and going to day release vocational college. I was proud that I had learned to speak German so quickly and that sometimes customers did not even realise that I was not a native German speaker. How had I not noticed my talent for learning modern languages before this point, I wondered.

Fast-forward to our move to Geneva and things have changed in my life. I am no longer a single woman, I have children, a family, a house, a car, a garden, even a dog. And I have realised that I am not particularly talented in speaking foreign languages – my fluency was born out of necessity.

In Germany I had very few English speaking friends, no British TV, no English speaking radio and could only afford to fly home once a year. Flights to UK cost DM 446 (why can I remember the exact price of flights in 1993 but not what I had for lunch yesterday) and I was only earning DM 500 a month. So, it was indeed sink or swim. Learn German or not communicate.

Not to mention the fact that I had a Germany boyfriend (now my husband) and lived with him and his parents for a year before we found our own apartment. I even speak German with a Franconian accent, gel? When we met we spoke English but gradually we switched to German. Later I tried to pinpoint when we started speaking German, but could not.

Here in Switzerland, particularly in Geneva, there are English speakers everywhere. We have at least 10 English speaking families in our village, several of them with children in the local school with our children. I belong to the Women’s Club, where not all members are Native English speakers but it is the common language. We have British TV – the Swiss telecommunications provider Swisscom offers Bluewin TV – French, German, Spanish, Italian, English TV through the internet. When I switch on the radio, I can listen to World Radio Switzerland or I pop my iPhone into the docking station and listen to BBC Radio through the Wunderradio app. Not everyone speaks English, but if I find that I need help, there is often someone around who can translate.

Added to the fact that most expats are here for a couple of years, so there is not quite so much push to learn to speak the language – if we were going to be living here for the next 20 years, then we would make more effort, I am sure.

The Swiss are not particularly interested in making new friends. I don’t mean that in a nasty or snarky way; it is a simple fact that the locals see so many expats coming and going that they do not go out of their way to befriend them. One school mum said that she made friends with a British woman a couple of years ago and was very close to her. When her new friend left Geneva, she was very upset, her children were very upset. So she decided not to make friends with expats anymore.

I also have something that I did not have in Germany almost 20 years ago – a computer. Internet. Simultaneously saviour and downfall for the expat. Saviour* because it is fantastic to be able to google and find a DIY store (Hardware store, for American English readers) without driving around looking for one. To be able to search for the place to buy self-raising flour in Switzerland (and to find it is not available here but that the French sell Farine de Gateaux). To ask on Mumsnet advice for the best areas of Geneva to live, or to chat to other mums back home. I had no iPhone (how on EARTH did I manage?) and no Twitter.

Our friends are English speakers, the children go to school with English speakers – although they speak French in school – and we seek English speaking doctors, dentists, handymen, hairdressers.

Finding a hairdresser is a case in point. Most of my friends find it difficult to find a hairdresser they like in Geneva. I put this down to the slightly different hairdressing styles, and the fact that you need pretty good French to explain exactly what you want to a hairdresser. It is not that the stylists are bad here, but miscommunication means that the expectations and results are often miles apart. I recently met a lovely woman who happens to be a hairdresser. She came for lunch yesterday and in return cut and coloured my hair. For the first time in years, I was really happy with my hairstyle.

My new friend is American but her husband is French and she already speaks much better French than I do. Ok, they have been together for a while, but she is more motivated and works harder to learn the language. She is also hearing the language more than I do as she watches French TV and listens to French radio.

She is encouraging me to go with her to French lessons, and in the spirit of #livemorebravely, I will try to do so. In future when somone asks, “Parlez vous Français?”, I would like to be able to answer, “Oui!” without hesitation.

I googled these words as I was unsure of the correct spelling and came across this website. Does that not strike you as a whole load of people quite spectacularly missing the point?


  • Pewari

    Words often escape me in my own language, let alone another, so I’m mightily impressed of your language skills regardless of fluency.

    I agree with you that the difference is the necessity – I’ve never really needed to have good skills in a second language, excluding a couple of barely tolerated French exchanges. And maybe school foreign language is as poor an indicator of ability as school PE is and I’d actually be okay if I had to learn another language fluently.

    The idea scares the crap out of me though, so I’m back to being mightily impressed 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I find it interesting how many people discover unhidden talents many years after they leave school. Imagine what they could have achieved if the school had recognised that talent and helped the child develop it.

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