On French Language and Culture

(by Greg)

Our family served in Kibuye for 9 months in 2014-2015.  Since our time in Burundi, we felt God’s call to serve alongside the long-term team working there.  And so, after a year of support raising and preparation, we are currently in Albertville, France, trying to improve our French before returning to Kibuye this summer.

To be honest with you, I actually enjoy studying a new language.  I know, I am a geek.  I know many people who do not enjoy learning a new language, and I hold no ill will toward them.  But I have always been fascinated by what you can discover about a culture through their language.  I enjoy learning new vocabulary, new ways of expressing everyday phrases.  I even enjoy conjugating verbs.  Shameful, I know.

Although our time in France has not always been easy, I have tried to remind myself daily what a gift it is to live in another culture, to explore, to experience life in a new way for 10 months.  I am fascinated by the way different cultures use language and the insight you gain as you study their vocabulary.  For example, as an American I would often use a phrase such as, “I am excited to do this or that”, or “I am looking forward to this or that”.  So, upon our arrival in France, it seemed like a no brainer to me, to translate this word for word from English.  There is a French word for excited almost identical to the English word.  The problem, as I learned about a month after our arrival, is that this expression has a, shall we say, romantic connotation.  I was asked to please stop using this phrase.  Okay, but then how do I express to someone that I am indeed looking forward to something, or that I am excited in the American sense of the word?  I asked my language partner, who is French.  He thought about it for a moment, then said “we don’t really have that emotion”.  I have since asked several other French people, and the best I have been able to come up with is, “j’attends avec impatience”, which translates directly to, “I am waiting with impatience”.  I now use this phrase often, reciting it with as much enthusiasm as I can muster.

There have been other phrases that I find sometimes puzzling, sometimes amusing.  For example, the French do not say a man “grows a beard”, rather they say he “pushes out a beard” (pousser une barbe).  Maybe I have just not been pushing hard enough?  Also, a woman does not “become pregnant”, she “falls down pregnant” (tomber enceinte).  And finally, the phrase “mind your own business” is translated more appropriately as “occupy yourself with your own onions”.  These make me giggle every time I hear them.

The French have many beautiful customs, one of which is “la bise”.  Recently, I wrote a blog post (on our family blog) about how awkward I have been with regards to this French custom of kissing on each cheek when greeting someone (http://beyondourbackdoor.blogspot.fr).   Since writing the blog I have received more helpful advice about how and when to “faire le bise”. One piece of advice involved taking off my glasses before kissing someone, so as to avoid eye injury.  So, this week, in preparation for a “bisous”, I took off my glasses.  I then dropped them on the ground mid-bise, kicked them across the room, shuffled to retrieve them like a blind mole-rat, then apologized for how awkward I am.  It seems I still have a ways to go.

Another troublesome point for me (and other Americans) is the ubiquitous use of “tu” versus “vous”, which mean “you”, tu being informal, and vous being formal.  The point at which two people switch from the formal vous to the informal tu remains to me infinitely mysterious.  There are rules, but at some point in a relationship, which is not clear to me, you switch.  A fellow student found the table below to help us hopeless Americans parse through this issue.  It reminded me of the algorithm for cardiac clearance before elective surgery.  God help me, I love a good algorithm. Now I just need to memorize it, apply it, stop dropping my glasses when I try to kiss someone, and stop giggling when I hear someone say that they have “fallen down pregnant”, and I will be good to go.  I am eager to get back to Burundi and start using the knowledge we have gained here in France.  In fact, I might go so far as to say that I wait with impatience!!!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was fun! At 86, and egalitarian, I think I'm all tus. But then in the American south, probably this won't come up.

So grateful you will help in the wonderful work in Burundi.

Love, Phyllis