When conversational French isn’t good enough

<Ducks on Lake Annecy, France>The other day in Annecy, I was sitting by the lake and watching some ducks. I was also watching three boys wading through the shallow water throwing something at the ducks. At first, I thought it was food. They were throwing stones. Aware that a large stone could severely injure or kill a duck, I looked around for the kids’ parents and hoped they would notice what the kids were doing.

If I had been in an English-speaking country, I wouldn’t have waited, but that’s the thing about learning a foreign language: the nuances make all the difference. Even if my French is word perfect, how do I convey the right amount of sternness in my tone? How do I pick the words that convey the sentiments. In our brains, our mother language thesaurus started growing when we were babies, but my French language thesaurus only began around five years ago. The appropriate words might not be the ones I’m really looking for. And on top of all that, what do I do if the kids yell something back at me that I don’t understand?

As I sat there wondering why it was taking me so long to react, I realised I was scared. Confrontation doesn’t really bother me, but in another language — and with kids who are already being naughty — it made me hesitate. But what’s more important? Me looking like a fool by saying the wrong thing in my second language (and that wouldn’t be the first time), or trying to stop ducks getting maimed or killed? I walked over and told the kids off, wondering why I’d chosen ‘tu‘ (used for kids or those you know well) instead of ‘vous‘ (used for plural, even when kids) to tell them off. I explained in dodgy French what might happen if they hit a duck and told them to stop. They replied in perfect French and I walked away.

Did they stop? No. As I turned back to check, one held a stone ready to throw. He saw me and put his arm back down. Then I heard one of them say: ‘It was him’ in English and I realised they were English kids. Damn! I could have told them off in perfectly good English, with all those well-picked words and correct intonations and so much less effort! A quick look around led me directly to the boys’ mother, who I know, and the kids finally stopped throwing stones.

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I'm a technical author, journalist and writer from Australia who has been living in Europe since 2000 and exploring the world from there. My passions are writing, snow sports and travel.

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12 comments on “When conversational French isn’t good enough
  1. Kind of depends on the age of the kids …. my degree of ‘directness’ would depend on that. There’s a big difference between what you might say to a 9 year old, compared to a 15 year old – in French, or any other language.

  2. Ron Rundle says:

    On a recent trip to Venice, a local lad (late teens)was terrorising a slightly deformed pigeon by lashing out with his foot, trying to impress his laughing mates.
    I speak french quite well, and italian haltingly, but at the sight of this moronic act, all international protocol goes out the window. My call of “Hey d…head, f…ing come here I will kick you” in english, with added tentative kicking motions, actually produced a shamed expression and cessation of procedings. On reflection, another time or place may have resulted in a knife in the belly or a severe beating, but as I get older my intolerance for mindless acts grows. But, I don’t care that I am simultaneously becoming a silly old bugger and a grumpy old man.

  3. Wendy says:

    Ron, I fought the urge to say something similar! It’s rare that I win (as proven yesterday when I swore at a Swiss policeman for being so anal and not letting us drive to where we needed to go – but more of that in another blog entry!).

  4. Ahhhh what a great post and one which I can really relate too. I love the twist at the end..x

  5. Wendy says:

    Thanks Claire. All those nuances came to life in my native English – especially when the mum used them back to insist it wasn’t her two boys and it must have been their friend. We naunced up for a while there…

  6. Lesley says:

    I have seen a dog being beaten by it’s owner with a large stick. What do we do when the whole ethos of the country is so different regarding animals.
    My take has always been that children abuse animals and grow up to abuse children.

  7. “The whole ethos”??! Hardly. And there are a few (missing) steps in the rational argument for which I would I would like to see some evidence, before I accept that all kids who may maltreat an animal to a greater or lesser degree then proceed to abuse children when they are themselves adults.

  8. Emm says:

    Oooohhh, that would make me mad! I’d be most likely to just storm up and shout “no?” or the local version of it if I know it. It is likely to be the most intimidating for kids if an adult comes storming up. Then I’d ask for their parents which should hopefully terrify them.

    Oh, and I do believe a statistically significant number of serial killers abused animals as children so Lesley isn’t far wrong. They were often acting out abuse done to them though, which in itself places them at higher risk of becoming abusers.

  9. Let’s piece these wonderful examples of rational thinking together. Not only does the “whole ethos” in France encourage animal abuse and therefore child abuse, “statistically significant” numbers of this horde of infant French animal torturers will become serial killers. Wow! What a country I’ve been living in for 25 years!

    Poverty, stress, alcohol and drug abuse are the key factors in child abuse. Spain, where bull-fighting has long been a national sport and lorry drivers deliberately target stray dogs on the roads, is bottom of the global league of deaths resulting from child maltreatment.

    As for serial killers, according to the FBI stats the USA produces 76% of the world total, with Europe in second, at 17%. The UK has 28% of the European total, France 13%. Damn, that contradicts the ‘rationale’ above. Oh well, you know what they say about statistics…

  10. Kudos to you for having the guts to say something, and in French. I’m new to Annecy and my French is OK but not stellar; I can appreciate where you were coming from as it’s been intimidating, at times (but also exciting), breaking into a new culture and language. I’ll come back and visit again … nice to find you. 🙂

  11. Wendy says:

    Thanks, Grunge Queen. I’m sure you can appreciate all that wasted effort of trying in another language! Annecy is a great place to hang out. Le Retour des Alpages is coming up in a few months – I always feel sorry for the geese who have to walk such a long way with their rubbery little webbed feet and always look very stressed, but it’s a fantastic parade!

  12. Dormouse says:

    I had a similar experience a couple of years back (as retold here: http://dormouse.wibsite.com/2010/06/24/the-cyclo-club-goes-away-for-the-weekend/) when I told a group of kids off for throwing stones at ducks. I really didn’t think twice, even tho my French was terrible. I just waded in…which may, or may not have been a ghood idea. I’m glad you said something!

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