Our Family’s (2nd) Year in the South of France
Kids and Castles - Our year with kids in the South of France

Category — Language

Being the Maman Anglais

To my kids’ school friends, I am the Maman Anglais who speaks a very strange and limited version of French.

Starting in Grade 1, French children study English in school, and some of them like to practice with me. It’s usually a pretty basic conversation, but I know how encouraging it is to have a native speaker understand you when you try to speak their language – and how very discouraging it is when they just don’t.

I make an effort to be supportive of any child who wants to take their English words for a spin, so when a boy came up to me the other day at a village party and started off with our usual English exchange, I gave him my full attention.

Boy:  “Allo”
Me:   “Hello.  How are you?”
Boy:  “Good.”
Me:   “I am good too.”
Boy:  “Cheat.”
Me:   (Very confused because usually they say bye and leave at this point. I don’t understand but don’t want to discourage him.) “Pardon.”
Boy:  “Cheat.  ummm…  Sheet.”
Me:   (Still not getting it but wanting to encourage him.)  “Yes. You have a sheet?”

He left before I figured out that he was trying to shock me with his new English swear word. That boy definitely needs to work on his accent to be bilingually obnoxious.

February 22, 2014   1 Comment

“Do You Speak French Now?”

I can’t believe how fast this has come. We’re heading home. We spent last week in Lyon doing some final errands and seeing the sights.

Lyon Parc de la Tête d'Or

Biking in Lyon's fantastic Parc de la Tête d'Or

Now we’re in Ottawa to visit JM’s family before heading back to California in mid-August.

One year of stuff


It’s odd to be back in an English environment. I’m getting severe information overload from being able to easily understand what is going on. I could have happily missed overhearing this little gem while I was in in the Chicago airport:

“Never take a sleeping pill and a laxative at the same time.”

Even after a year, it is still not easy for me to understand French. It did get better, of course. Now I can often (but not always) make myself understood if I have enough time and the person I’m talking to is very patient or adequately motivated. I would feel quite fluent if I only talked to people at the farmer’s market and the parents waiting to pick up their kids from the school bus.

But the truth is I still don’t speak French. Typically I don’t understand someone speaking to me without repetition, I figure out what to say about five minutes after it would have been appropriate, and I frequently discover that I have completely misunderstood the entire topic of conversation.

To summarize:  I can buy food, pick my sick kid up from school, and get info from a tourist office in French. I can’t discuss ideas, understand humor, or have an interesting conversation except in English.

My expectations for this year were MUCH higher. But the reality was that I didn’t live in French even though I was in France. I continued to work in English, spoke English at home, met any person in a 20-mile radius who spoke English, and easily kept in touch with English-speaking friends through the magic social media and the free phone calls (thank you Vonage!). On one hand it was great because I wasn’t lonely and depressed. But it wasn’t conducive to achieving fluency.

As one very direct old lady in the village said about my mastery of French this year: It is better, but it is not good.”  She is right.

Perhaps we’ll need to go back and fix that some day.

August 7, 2011   5 Comments

A Monolingual’s Apology

Being on the receiving end of a multitude of French conversations that I don’t understand has taught me a lot about the best way to talk to someone who is learning a new language. I now know that I did a really terrible job at this for the first forty years of my life.

To all the non-native-English speakers that I have ever talked to in English: I am sorry.

I am sorry for talking so quickly. Believe it or not, that speed actually was me trying to talk slower than I usually do. I now know that it wasn’t anywhere close to comprehensible. From now on, I will do better. I. Will. Put. Separations. Between. Each. Word. I. Say.

I am sorry for making jokes and laughing. It wasn’t that I meant to be rude, it was just my way of trying to make you feel comfortable. I realize now that jokes are almost impossible to get when you’re just learning a language, and that the laughing probably made you feel more uncomfortable than anything else I could have done.

I am sorry for using more words when you didn’t understand the first time. When I talk English that works. Now I know that it helps to have a phrase repeated exactly the same way – maybe even a couple of times.

I am sorry for treating our social interaction as a “learning opportunity” for you. I only meant to be kind, not pressure you to talk correctly when just stringing together a noun and a verb that makes sense is an enormous mental effort.

I am sorry for not giving you time to think. I assumed those pauses meant you had nothing you wanted to say. I will keep quiet more so you can search your brain for those words that are just out of reach in the moment.

I am sorry for using polysyllabic words when a simple word would have worked. That really is the way I talk. It didn’t occur to me that you were more likely to understand “good” and “bad” then “magnificent” or “disturbing”.

I am sorry, and I will do better from now on.


May 12, 2011   10 Comments

Naked Squeegee Party?

JM brought me some old copies of The Economist when he came back from California. I was fascinated by this article on the future of English as the “world’s second language”. It argues that English will stop being used so commonly, because technology will replace the need for a commonly used global business language:

“English will have no successor because none will be needed. Technology…will fill the need.”

Interesting, but I’m not convinced. The technology is really just not there. Even with the incredible smarts underlying the Google Translate service, the algorithms still don’t understand the context of language. Here are a few examples:

  • We were invited to get together with some people in the village, so of course we asked what we could bring. The response was “Non bien sûr vous ne portez rien” which Google translated as “Of course you do not wear anything”. I’m hoping our hostess actually meant that we shouldn’t bring anything.
  • A local family invited us for dinner where they would serve a raclette – a Swiss dish that is mostly melted cheese. I put the message into Google Translate just to check that I understood the details, and found out we’d been invited to “participate in a squeegee”.
  • We put together some ideas for L’s birthday presents. She really wants a spinning top, called a toupie in French. I did a sanity check on the list before sending it out, and for some reason Google decided L wants a “router” for her birthday.
  • Google Translate thinks my belle-mere (mother-in-law) speaks old English, and translated her inquiry “As-tu mangé de l’agneau que tu aimes beaucoup?” as “Hast thou eaten of the lamb that you like?”

Google Translate

All these examples are from just this week, so these are common occurrences, not rare exceptions. Personally, I am not stopping my efforts to learn French anytime soon.

January 11, 2011   8 Comments

My French Week

JM and his fluent French went back to California this week leaving me alone with my struggling preschool-quality attempts to communicate. It was a week of ups and downs language-wise, but I survived.


  • Gardener here. We had an exchange of pleasantries which went very nicely – mostly because he didn’t need anything.
  • Picked up the bread order at the village cafe. Got (very willingly) upsold to a pain au chocolat for Tuesday’s order.
  • I went grocery shopping and didn’t embarrass myself.

So far so good. I can do this.


  • Cold this morning, so drove the girls to the bus. 4-way flasher on for some reason. Can’t figure out how to turn it off.  Isn’t there a huge red button somewhere to press?  Drove around all morning with the hazards flashing before I figured it out. Embarrassing.
  • Gardener wants to talk to me today. Something about the olive trees and what he normally does. Really absolutely no idea what he’s talking about (gardening vocabulary not covered yet in Rosetta Stone). No actual communication happens, but assuming it doesn’t matter.
  • Contractor is supposed to come by at 11:30 to see about some insulation. Look up the word “weatherstripping” on Google Translate so I can suggest it. Translation given is bise. But bise means kiss!?!? Decide not to mention weatherstripping – just in case.
  • Contractor does not show up. He calls at noon and talks a lot and very, very fast. I manage to say in French “I don’t speak much French, please speak slowly” and he said “D’accord” (O.K.) and talks even more, even faster French. I did catch the word heure (hour) so figured it was safe to assume he was rescheduling. I asked him to “repetez l’heure” (repeat the hour). I think I heard 2:00, and aujourd’hui (today). I’ll know in a few hours if I was right.
  • 3:00 and contractor is still not here. Bummed that I did not understand. But at 3:10 he calls to reschedule again. This house may never get insulated but I’m getting lots of practice booking appointments in French.
  • We have been invited to dinner with a local family who speaks about as much English as I speak French. I was worried it would be awkward and difficult, but didn’t  want to pass up the experience. Turns out I had a great time. We mostly covered the basics that we had the vocabulary for – where we live, the kids, the weather, the school, the food, and so on. Every sentence is an effort to say/understand, so it takes the entire evening to get through what would normally be a 20 minute conversation. But they are quite patient and the food is excellent. We both put our French-English dictionaries on the table to look up the occasional word, mostly vegetable words I don’t know in English either (what is escarole anyway?)


  • Take the girls shopping. As we check out we trip the security alarm, which upsets L so she is absolutely no help when the guard comes over and asks me to take off my jacket. I panic, and completely forget every word of French I ever knew. It’s shaping up to be the beginning of a really, really bad situation, but he just snips off a tag  inside my jacket and we’re done. Easy-peasy.


  • Go to the cafe to pick up the bread. Chat a bit in English with a woman from England. After she leaves, an older lady who has been having a coffee makes some comment to the rest of the cafe about not speaking French in France. Normally I would just get my bread and leave, but I get up my courage and say that I can speak French if she prefers, but it’s very difficult for me.  She ends up talking with me in French, and turns out to be quite delightful. Am proud of myself for trying – and very, very relieved that I didn’t inadvertently start a village scandal.


  • Insulation guy finally comes and brings a buddy.  He does not grasp the concept of speaking slowing and using small words. No matter what I do he just talks with more words and speaks faster. Not going well at all. He is just not understanding me and I am not understanding him. The buddy is no help at all. He keeps saying something with the word “anglais” and then laughing. I finally grab my laptop and open Google Translate and we type notes back and forth. It works, but overall a very discouraging interaction.
  • Pick up the kids at the bus. For the first month the other moms who were waiting would say “Bonjour” and then talk to each other while we waited. But one day I asked for them what French kids did for their teachers at Christmas, and now every day we chat a little bit. The 3-4 minutes it takes to wait for the bus lets us cover one topic, and I spend some time each day planning for that short interaction and checking the vocabulary. Today we talk about our plans for Christmas. It’s nice.

It’s Saturday and I have survived!!!  But I will be very happy to see JM on Monday.

December 18, 2010   7 Comments

I Must be Trying Hard Because I’m Failing Constantly

I think everyone who works in Silicon Valley eventually hears this:  If you’re not failing sometimes, you’re not trying hard enough.

By that measure, I’m sure trying hard to learn French because I’m failing a LOT:

  • I met a woman I thought was my age until she mentioned she had a son attending college in Lyon. I wanted to compliment her and say that she looked very jeune (young), but I mistakenly told her she was jaune (yellow).
  • I was talking to a waiter about his shirt and was amused by the story he told us about buying it at a football game in Miami. Afterward I found out he was actually talking about a Madonna concert.
  • I spent the day of my birthday telling everyone “Aujourd’hui, j’ai quatorze ans” (Today I am fourteen years old).

I was asked last week what method I’m using to learn French. I do have Rosetta Stone which I use, although not as often as I should. I did look into classes but the ones I found were pretty basic covering the stuff I already know –  alphabet, numbers, and asking for the restroom. I looked for a local tutor when we first got here, but didn’t have any luck.

(Side comment:  L’s Grade 1 class is starting English this year and the first thing they learned was “eyes”, “chin”, “nose” and “I don’t understand.”)

So my method is “Leave the house and talk to whoever doesn’t run away“. It’s actually a pretty good approach as long as JM doesn’t come with me. Don’t get me wrong, the whole bilingual husband thing is incredibly useful and I only love him more every time he answers the phone or figures out the crazy train schedules. But whenever he is there people talk to him instead of me, so I leave him at home when I go to pick up the bread or get the kids from the bus or buy the chocolate, and each time it’s a French lesson.

Next week JM is going to California and I’ll be here with the girls by myself. I’m nervous, but I’ll survive and probably learn more French that week than the rest of the trip so far.

December 10, 2010   5 Comments

Tip: Always Use Parking Brake When the Mistral is Blowing

It’s a cold and miserable day here in Provence. The mistral, the wind made famous by Peter Mayle, is blowing.

I stopped to get gas after dropping off the girls at school today.  This is always a bit of an adventure since our local  gas station has pumps that don’t like any of my credit cards – even the local one from France. Once again my card magically worked after failing six or seven or twelve times.

(Paranoid Thought:  Does choosing the “English” button make it fail? Is this a subtle way they torment people who don’t speak French? Easier for me to believe that then the more obvious conclusion that I simply lack the proper skill to put a credit card into a gas pump.)

Just as it started to fill up, I realized the car at the pump beside me was ROLLING AWAY.  The mistral was strong enough that it was making the car move.  The driver was grabbing at the gas-cap-door-thingy to try and stop the car while speaking very excited, very fast French. Even I could figure out that she needed some help.

I will confess that my first thought was “Dang, I just got this pump to work. If I stop now will I ever get gas?” before doing the right thing and running over to push the runaway car back into place.

I will ALWAYS check my own parking brake from now on!

October 18, 2010   3 Comments

My History with the French Language

The pinnacle of success in my French-speaking life so far was Grade 9. I wrote and starred in our French class video “La Mort de Marie Antoinette” (The Death of Marie Antoinette).  There was very little dialogue in the production.  The real highlight was the shot of the biology rat running along the top of a table with our rendition of a Paris cityscape taped to it. I flubbed the final dramatic line “Je suis ce que je suis. Je ne suis pas désolé pour ce que j’ai fait. (I am what I am.  I am not sorry for what I have done) by substituting the words “des écoles” (some schools) for the word “désolé” (sorry). But since none of the parents or students who watched the film spoke French either, it was considered a triumph.

Later that same year, I participated in a program at the local University where high school students attended special classes for a week to expose them to the college experience. I ended up in the French class. It was AWFUL. It was my first actual experience with people speaking French fluently, and I didn’t understand a word the entire time. My ability to comment that the table was black and the weather was cold was not the least bit useful or relevant. I was so miserable I skipped the last two days of the class, which was probably the most realistic part of the “University experience” they were trying to show us.

That summer my family moved to a new town and I had a new school. The town had an immersion program, so I imagined French class there would be a repeat of the hell I’d just been through. I knew I would doom myself to never landing a good government job, but I felt I could live with that consequence. I opted to take shorthand instead of French – in retrospect a clearly bad life choice.

French had no place in my life for the next 8 years except occasionally having to flip over boxes of stuff to find the English side. (I still instinctively do that, and it takes me a couple of flips before I realize there isn’t any English.)

It was in graduate school that I met the first people in my life whose mother tongue was not English. It was a huge eye-opener for me. One of those people was a French-Canadian that had gone to high school with JM. We were introduced and French re-entered my life.

The friends who introduced us moved to France the next year to study and I took my first trip to Europe to visit them. I brought my French-English dictionary and I was determined to communicate. One afternoon I decided to buy a t-shirt as a gift for JM and I was determined to do it in French instead of finding the store with the “we speak English” sign. I spent 30 minutes  formulating various translations of the the transaction and practicing what I was going to say in my head. When I finally got up the courage to go into the store and make my request, the response from the lady helping me was “medium or large?”.  I was devastated.

With time, I did make some progress. JM and I vacationed in Quebec about 12 years ago – before kids. It was a really beautiful trip. He did all the talking of course, but one night after a glass of wine I got up the courage to ask for something by myself. I was thrilled when I actually received the cup of mint tea I had ordered. A small win, but it instilled confidence that I might be able to communicate. Maybe.  Someday.

Since then my exposure to French has increased. JM has consistently spoken French to the girls since they were born, so I have heard the language at home every day for the past six years. We have filled the house with french books and DVDs so I’ve expanded my vocabulary to include animal words, letters of the alphabet, and other important kid language.  It’s helped some. Twelve years ago when we traveled to Quebec I didn’t understand anything anyone said to me ever. Last year I occasionally understood what was going on about five minutes after the fact.

In summary, a lifetime of exposure to French, and I still can’t speak the language. Yes, that embarrasses me. But I moved to France, I have Rosetta Stone to help me, and an entire country of people (including 3 in my house) who speak the language to practice on. It’s just to do it – and to get over the embarrassment of sounding like a pre-schooler with a serious speech impediment.

September 15, 2010   7 Comments

The Children are NOT Helping

The kids are old enough to sort-of understand what it means to go to France for a year, but not completely get it. We’ve had a lot of lead time on the trip, so we are trying to prep them bit by bit. One part they really aren’t getting is the “helping Mommy with French” part. (They are both fluent in French, and I’m not.)

Last summer we vacationed in Quebec.  It was an amazing trip. The province is very beautiful – especially in August when the blueberries are ripe and the mosquitoes are mostly dead. I was at the beach with L and Z playing a game where I was picking them up and throwing them in the water when a little girl came up and spoke to me in French.  I was pretty sure that she was asking me to toss her in the water too, but it’s the kind of thing you want to be COMPLETELY sure about. So I asked L to help me understand what the little girl wanted. She turned to the girl and said “Ma maman ne parle pas français”  (My mom doesn’t speak french.NOT HELPFUL!!!

L and Z at the beach in Quebec

L and Z at the beach in Quebec last year

After that experience, I figured I needed to prep them so they might be more useful in a similar situation when we are in France. But it’s backfiring.  Instead they have become convinced that I’ll never speak French and are saying things that are downright discouraging:

  • Z:  “Mommy, you’re going to struggle in France because you don’t speak French.”
  • L:  “How will you talk to anybody in France. You won’t be able to buy food without Daddy’s help.”
  • And Z’s latest helpful idea:  “Maybe you can teach the people in France to speak English”.

The children have no faith in me.  Sigh.

July 23, 2010   5 Comments

Signed a Contract in French

It was a very strange experience to sign my name to a contract written in a language I don’t understand. Of course, the fluent husband is quite helpful.

Here’s the interesting part:  Even though the contract was in French, I felt like it was actually easier to understand than any other contract I’ve signed. There wasn’t any “fine print”.  It was a four-page document in a reasonable sized font with lots of white space. I felt much more confident in signing my name to that in French then any of the English contracts I’ve signed:  especially credit card applications, mortgage papers, and (worst of all) anything related to health care.

So another big thing down – we have our house all lined up.  We can arrive anytime after August 26th.  It is in the Drome area of Provence, a region known for medieval castles.  JM is excited about the history, and I’m thrilled that we are walking distance from croissants and have reliable internet access.

June 21, 2010   1 Comment