Lovely Awkward: A Year of Wine, Romance and Life Among the French

Lovely Awkward: A Year of Wine, Romance and Life Among the French

Monday 20 June 2011

Civic life in France -- the one-day crash course

As part of my carte de séjour application, there are several formations to go through. They're day-long or half-day courses on life in France, the French language, how to get a job in France, and civic life in France. On Saturday, I went through the civic course to learn about my civic rights and duties, but left with some new insight on why English can never be considered a Romance Language.

Here's some of what we learned in the course (a very simple explanation):

France is a country full of history, symbols, principals and institutions. The French Revolution happened in 1789, and changed the structure of the country, and then the Eiffel Tower was built a hundred years later to celebrate.

We learned about the three colours of the French flag, Marianne, la fête nationale, the names of former presidents, the names of ministers, the basics of how the government works, and about our basic rights and requirements. We also sang up to the end of the first chorus of La Marseillaise ... I knew it was on the test!!!

What I found more interesting than the course, however, was the group of people that had been assembled to take it. I was the only native English speaker, but some people spoke in English because they didn't know any French. There were two translators: one for Arabic and one for English (although, she wasn't a native English speaker either). Everyone, except for the instructor and the translators, was a newcomer; some had been in France for only months and others had been here for a few years.

Gathered into our stuffy little room were electricians, house painters, stay-at-home moms, high-tech workers, cleaners, and office staff -- and me, one journalist. Others, who didn't name their professions, said they planned to take the formation on getting a job in France because they still weren't sure how they would fit in.

And then at lunch, it was obvious that some people had figured that out.

The visa-seekers all separated into groups based on their native tongues. Some women began chatting to each other in what I guessed was Mandarin, a few of the men started making jokes in Arabic that made the rest of the Arabic-speaking applicants laugh, and a small group of men began speaking to each other in an Eastern European language, although I didn't know which one.

Being the only English speaker, I didn't have a natural group. I did, however, learn something funny about how the English language is perceived (even though I spoke French almost the entire time).

At one point, one of the Eastern European speakers approached me to see if I was supposed to belong to his group.

"I thought you might speak an Eastern language and you could join in the discussion we are having. Do you speak Russian?" he asked me during one of our breaks.

"No, I don't. Sorry. I speak English and French," I replied, not sure if that meant I would be excluded since he had asked his question in both of those languages.

"You don't speak any Eastern languages? Polish? Russian? Czech?" he asked again.

"No, but I can discuss topics in English," I said with a smile.

And then, without any intention of being rude, he offered me this little bit of insight into my language: "That would be like starting a discussion in French and then having it in English. The language gets simplified. English is a simple language. It's just for business."

And, I was again left groupless, until I found some French speakers to join.

Are anglophones really considered this boring??


  1. I went through a similar course here in the Netherlands (i'm canadian too) 10 yrs ago...but unlike your experience i was considered elite BECAUSE i was an english speaker! (and french...i'm from montreal). No one cared about my french skills but i was immediatly accepted by teachers and students alike because of being native english...strange!

  2. Susan: Elite? I know the ability to speak English is good, but I didn't know the native speaker designation could make someone posh! I hope you used that to your advantage...

  3. It always annoys me when people think English is such a simple language simply because 90% of the world population can say "how are you?" and "what's your name". I also laugh at people who are "bilingual after spending a summer in the US". English is much more complex than that... you can get by quickly but the slang, the expression, proper grammar etc. take time to master. Like with any other language.

    I can't even sing one chorus of La Marseillaise :-D

  4. Zhu: We were handed a page with the words to the song. We cheated!

    I've been telling myself that the guy's comment was more about his ability to understand what I would have said rather than the versatility of the language. Although, I don't speak enough different languages to know if there's some level of discussion I've never imagined :)