Sunday, 23 November 2008

Count yourself lucky if you don't speak French

I'm a murderer. And I'm something of a polyglot. Or perhaps that should be the other way around.

Whatever, one thing's for sure. I can happily give several languages a jolly thorough oral and aural mangling - linguistically speaking, but somehow, somewhere along the line I manage to come out the other side to make myself understood.

But the one thing I can't get to grips with is numbers.....and more specifcally counting, especially here in France where they're a foreigner's nightmare.

Every time I try to give someone my telephone number or make a note of someone else's - particularly over the 'phone - it resembles a badly written scene from the very worst television sitcom. Exactly why will become clearer (I hope) in a moment.

Let me give you a little bit of background, and in the process a quick French lesson.

Apologies in advance if when you get to the "numbers" it all looks rather muddled and complicated in writing. Just imagine, as you're reading, how confusing it can be when speaking.

French isn't the hardest of languages to speak - well at least for a native English speaker.

There are plenty of words that are similar. It's just the pronunciation that can prove a little tongue-twisting at times.

But once you've got over the initial embarrassment of thinking that you're making a complete fool of yourself, it becomes quite easy.

And the French will even warm to you when you try your luck.

Oh and you know that thing the British, at least, have about how sexy a French man or woman sounds when speaking English with a foreign (obviously French) accent.

Well, it sort of works the other way around too - well almost.

Oh all right only partially if you're being generous, but it's getting there - and all the better if you make the odd vocabulary mistake or two.

"Endearing" "charming" "cute" and "funny" - one of this country's most famous Brits living in France, Jane Birkin, the long time partner of the late and great Serge Gainsbourg, plays on the fact that she has an accent - even though she has been here for donkeys years.

And many French find it "adorable".

Well that has perhaps established that speaking the language isn't really as difficult as it might at first appear.......except that is when it comes to numbers.

Time to take a deep breath (and a stiff drink perhaps wouldn't go amiss.)

Probably a fair few of you reading this will be more than able at least to start counting in French:




and so on.

Fine. A good, simple start.

And from one to 69 everything is pretty much OK - well apart from 17, 18 and 19, or dix-sept, dix-huit and dix-neuf respectively, which quite literally translate as ten-seven, ten-eight and ten-nine.

But at 70 it goes blindingly and confusingly bonkers.

70 you see is soixante-dix or sixty-ten, and 71 is soixante et onze or seventy and eleven.

By the time you get to 77 you're in for one almighty mouthful soixante-dix-sept (sixty-ten-seven)

And 80 could blow your mind - quatre-vingts (four-twenty).

90 isn't much better. Any ideas?

Quatre-vingt-dix or four-twenty-ten.

It comes as something of a relief to have made it past 99 (quatre-vingt dix-neuf or four-twenty-ten-nine) to Cent.

Yes, yes there's an illogical logic to it all, but it all seems a bit of a conspiracy for the hapless foreigner to make things even more difficult than they actually should be.

So how does this all play out in everyday life for the Brit in France - or any other foreigner come to that?

"With difficulty," is the short reply, and here's why.

It involves going back to trying to jot down somebody's telephone number - be it over the 'phone or face-to-face (the former is worse).

Imagine you're on the 'phone for example, talking to customer services and the person the other end gives you another number to call - say 01 77 87 92 71 (a completely random telephone number, and one containing 10 digits as all French ones do)

Now in English - well at least in Britain - they tend to be spoken digit for digit.

Hence the person the other end of the line would tell you to call "Zero one seven seven eight seven nine two seven one." Nice and simple, and pretty easy to follow.

But remember this is France, and "bienvenue" to the foreigner's nightmare.

As you've probably noticed from the way I initially wrote it, the habit here in France is it to break the telephone numbers up into pairs, making life unnecessarily difficult and leading to a situation where, when spoken aloud that same number becomes.

"Zero, un, soixante dix-sept, quatre-vingt-sept, quatre-vingt-douze, soixante et onze."

OR, if you haven't been paying attention while the person the other end of the line has blasted it out at terrifying speed could end up as being written down as follows:

01 60 17 4 20 7 4 20 12 60 11.

Of course by the time you've made it past the second seven and you have more than 10 digits scribbled down, you realise that you've made a complete hash of it, and either have to ask the person to repeat it (more slowly) or say it in individual digits (which it has to be said sounds particularly cumbersome in French)

Experience teaches anyone living here what to expect, but even so it can still lead to confusion as the person the other end of the line seems to delight in having a laugh at the caller's expense.

Ah, there speaks the voice of experience as it happened just last week when trying to re-arrange an appointment with the electricity board to come and read the meter.

I had misdialled of course, and the receptionist, rather than transfer me - which seemed not to fall within her job description - gave me another number to call.

After writing down the first 12 digits of the 10-digit number, I realised my mistake and asked her to repeat it, which she exactly the same supersonic manner so that I had a combination that any security company would be happy to affix to their safes.

After three attempts I gave up, asking in my best British-accented French (laying it on thick and hoping to appear charming) whether she could give me the number in individual digits (à l'anglaise).

The charm factor clearly didn't work (how does Jane Birkin manage it?) as I could hear the sharp and indignant intake of breath, and even though the words "idiot" weren't muttered, they were clearly audible in between each pause she made as she enunciated e-v-e-r-y d-i-g-i-t as though she were talking to a five-year-old.

I repeated it back - sounding equally infantile even to my own ears, thanked her and hung up.

The 'phone is perhaps the greatest barrier when it comes to noting or painfully giving a number here in France.

But it can be just as excruciating when face-to-face with someone.

How many times have I launched confidently into rattling off my mobile number rapid fire (I've learnt it like a mantra) only to be asked ever-so-politely to repeat what I've just said?

Of course going back in to the number and trying to make sense of something that defies logic in the first place is no easy task, and to avoid further frustration, there's nothing better than resorting to the rather old-fashioned pen and paper.

The real thing though is that in all of this confusion, it's hard to get over the impression that the French in France are simply trying to make life difficult for the rest of us trying to get to grips with their language.

After all, they could - if they so wished - choose to follow the example of their Francophone cousins in Switzerland and Belgium.

The Swiss-French make life that little bit easier - at least numerically - by substituting septante (70), ottante/huitante (80) and nonnante (90) for the more exhausting - well I won't repeat myself.

While in Belgium, true to form, they don't quite go the whole hog, opting for septante and nonnante, but sticking with quatre vingts.

Ah well.

Of course if you wanted to look across the border from France to German numbers, you would be faced with a whole different set of problems as they seem to have a fascination for counting back to front.

Twenty one? Ein und zwanzig (one and twenty).

But that, as they say, is a whole other story.

Comptez bien et bon weekend.

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