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It’s All French To Me; Culture & The French Language

When it comes to regional differences within a language, most of the time we would not notice them until they hit us.

This story goes back to 2008, when I have just arrived in Belgium from France. I was still counting down the post-arrival days with one hand, while marveling at the comparative lack of bakeries around the corner in comparison to Paris, France, when my first “language shock” hits. I had to buy a new Belgian sim card in a local store. Just when I finished handing over the bills and about to bid the salesman adieu, the charming Belgian smiled and said “S’il vous plaît”.

S’il vous plaît? Please? Please what?

Maybe he owes me change, or maybe he just wants to offer me a piece of Belgian chocolate for good measure. I didn’t know why he s’il vous plaît-ed me. So I waited and crossed my fingers for a piece of chocolate. Those 10 seconds of awkward silence and being ignored felt like forever.

Our dear Belgian then looked up from his cash register and shot me a weird look –and then I finally caught on. He was thanking me for the purchase, and that was that. S’il vous plaît is like the French saying “Merci, bonne journée”, or the Quebecois with their “bienvenue” when a customer utters the final “thank you” after purchase. The saddest part of this all? There would be no chocolate. Boo hoo.

A few more weeks into my stay in Belgium, I finally came to the realization that no matter how long I stood in front of the cash register, there will be no chocolate. Likewise, “septante, octante, nonante” isn’t some regional way of shooing me away from chocolate, but the equivalent of the French’s “soixante-dix, quatre-vingt and quatre-vingt-dix” (seventy, eighty, ninety). The fact that a young Belgian girlfriend of mine kept replying “d’office” to my various comments does not mean that our conversation has gone bureaucratic; rather, it’s a colloquial way of saying “I agree” or “totally”. The list goes on and on.

The Cultural Differences In The French Language

As much as I loved Belgium and their awesome fries, beer and chocolate, I remember that those first few weeks of settling in were relatively painful. Being an FSL (French as a Second Language) learner myself, my first exposure to French was Quebecois french. I spent the first 7 or so years of my studies getting used to the delightful tilt in the accent and the occasional use of “franglais” in my speech. I was used to people being more comprehensive of my slipping into an anglophone accent, the need to pause and look for words and saying “Sacre bleu” instead of “Merde” when I am upset (which happens often when you have just relocated). The two years in France changed this around, and then Belgium came along. When I finally went back to Canada last year, I felt like as if I don’t know how to “properly” speak French anymore- my accent was a mix of regional variations, the words and slang terms I know were no longer applicable in Canada. While I pride myself to have figured out enough of the language to freely navigate in the social network there, I was not exactly part of the “in” crowd on this side of the ocean.

The obvious question you have in mind is now most likely to be: what is proper French, anyway?

Mind you, I am not a linguistics expert of any kind, but there is obviously a global preference of sorts. When the French settled in Quebec, they brought along their language and the language was passed down, without too much influence from Continental French. In my understanding, it is closer to “Old French” then present-day Continental French. The Quebeckers are most certainly very proud of the said heritage.

Accents and Vocabulary

I am presently living in Toronto, Canada, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, where many residents of this city are fluently bilingual. Many are first or second generation immigrants, and they speak English and some other language fluently and on a daily basis. Often, however, I hear many of my friends mention that they would like to work on their “English accent”, and yet whenever an Australian or Brit accent pops up, everyone in the room swoons and quite literally fall at the speaker’s feet. In between accents and vocabulary differences, it is therefore up to the experience and knowledge of a seasoned translator to give the best, most appropriate translation which suits the cultural context best. Knowing how to speak French and the target language well does not suffice. It is a lifelong career which involves patience, curiosity and an innate will to learn more about the culture at hand.


Author Rita Pang is part of the Chinese-English translation team at Rev.com and a freelance translator/blogger.