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Lost in the Labyrinth of Language

by Jean-Luc Barbanneau

Photo: Optilingo

This little story starts with me waiting nervously in the anteroom of a Magistrates Court in Brighton in 1975, not because of any crime, I hasten to make clear – though I was about to commit a minor offence of lèse-majesté... I was there for the final step in my acquiring British nationality, swearing allegiance to the Crown. I was nervous because I had just been given a small card with the words that I was to solemnly utter in front of the august panel I was about to face. And I could immediately see the problem. It was this bit that jumped at me “...her Majesty the Queen and all her heirs...” The difficulty might not seem obvious, unless you are French.

One of the banes of a native French speaker trying to pronounce English correctly is that troublesome letter ‘h’. It is mostly aspirated as in ‘house’ but then to complicate matters there are words in which it is silent such as ‘hour’ or ‘honest’ (bear with me, I’m still learning after fifty years...). And the greatest difficulty for a French speaker is that there is no such thing as exhaling to pronounce any letter in French. It is a totally unknown concept. All right, you can point to the frequent French habit of exaggerated blowing of air that usually accompanies the clichéd ‘Oh, la, la’ but that is a free-wheeling demonstration of emotion (in the French genes), not precise pronunciation of a word. The aspirated ‘h’ remains forever bizarre, as does putting the tip of one’s tongue between one’s teeth to produce the other sound that repeatedly defeats French learners of English, the ‘th’ sound. You can produce it in French but only if you want to talk in a silly way, imitating a toddler. Anyway, I am glad to say I have mostly mastered the ‘th’, but the ‘h’, silent or not, still regularly trips me up, so that I often incongruously morph into a faux cockney. Which can be amusing, to others. But this solemn declaration in front of their honourable (there it goes again...) justices was a serious matter. So, I practised discreetly as I waited to be called in: “...I swear allegiance to her Majesty the Queen and all her (h)eirs...”, attracting strange looks from the police officer in the room. I went in anxiously and had to find inner assertiveness to turn down the Bible and to state that I wished to “affirm”, which caused a few raised highbrows. Inevitably, when the moment came, I proceeded, in as firm a voice as I could muster, to swear allegiance to “...’er Majesty the Queen and all ’er hairs...”. The justices were not amused.

By that time, I was speaking a fluent and only subtly accented English but I remained dissatisfied with my command of the language. When friends and acquaintances insisted that I was as good as a native speaker, it reminded me of people pretending not to notice a physical disability, well-meaning but not to be wholly believed. In my relatively brief teaching years, no such sensitivity was shown by the pupils – in their cruel innocence, they knew how to be implacably truthful, never missing a chance to mock when I mispronounced a word. I was last in a classroom over forty years ago but those in my English family have never allowed me to forget that I once revealed I had caused students’ hilarity by pronouncing “awry” as aw-ry”.

After all these years I have become good enough to pass as a native speaker among strangers as long as conversations do not last very long – that is, until I am tripped up by the vagaries of stress. Being unsure where the stress is meant to fall is the curse of a foreign speaker of English, particularly anyone whose first language is French. I am not talking about the few words that are subject to a controversy/controversy, but about the vast majority where rules (never fully integrated by my brain) or established practice (not naturally acquired) should apply. I can’t always stop and think before I speak to decide if it’s dependability or dependability. Stress is a real minefield, especially because French is an unstressed language. The French might be easily given to emotional verbal displays but their language is flat – or at least there is no ordained stress on a certain syllable as in multi-syllable English words. On that particular score at least, French is more straightforward than English – French démocracie is easier to deal with than English democracy (if perhaps not in real life...). Even trickier is the handling of stress in compound constructions – the ones that can change meaning from a suit that is wet to a wetsuit you wear in cold water. It is all very stressful.

With an artificially learnt tongue, you are always an immigrant in the language landscape. You can never become as fully able as a native speaker, just more adept at concealing your impairment. Far from being fully bilingual, you end up being disabled in both languages. Stranded between the two. Awkward in both to different degrees.

And the more you immerse yourself in the new language, the more you become a less than perfect performer in your original language, gradually losing fluency through lack of practice. At first, it’s a case of still being able to call up the right words but finding that they come into your brain in the syntax and constructions of the new language, and you soon get stuck. Frustratingly, the first thing that is curtailed in your original tongue is the language of emotions and feelings. (This is linked to my failure to bring up bilingual children, but that is another story.) If you feel emotions in English, it becomes really difficult to express them in French. There are too many hurdles and you quickly reach dead ends and blockages, falling prey to hesitancy and false starts. Not so much lost in translation as fumbling in translation.

Eventually after some years, you start having to make an effort to recall certain words (how do you say ‘predicament’ in French again?). Not to speak of the muddy waters of common words with different meanings in each language, the notorious faux amis. As an aside to this, I can’t help feeling irritated by the currency that the phrase “economical with the actualité” has acquired in Britain. It was originally created by, Alan Clark, a colourful English Conservative politician (and womaniser and diarist), and is now widely used by journalists, even though it is nonsensical, a classic case illustrating the perils of faux amis, enticing because of using a word instantly recognisable in one’s own language but in fact inappropriate. The word that should be used there is réalité. Actualité is mostly used in French to denote something happening contemporaneously or, in the plural, to mean ‘the news’. But there is no going back.

For the sake of balance, I should say that the French are just as likely to get things wrong, and not just with faux amis. For example, not only have they adopted faire du footing for jogging, but they have now gone way beyond this to invent le fooding to describe everything that the people we call ‘foodies’ get up to – discovering new restaurants, going to farmers’ markets, being interested in cooking, in ingredients and recipes. Then, to go back to le footing, they have a chain of shoe shops specialising in trainers called Athlete Foot – a monstrous creation if ever there was one. And there is the whole realm of mispronunciations that, in a meme sort of way, can create new words – or at least new franglais words – to the chagrin of the language purists. (Full disclosure is perhaps required here, as I may well be one myself.) I once could not help doing a slight mental double take when one my brothers said to me, “Passe-moi mon sweet, s’il te plait”, asking me to hand over his sweatshirt. You can easily see the genesis, a shortened version and a mispronunciation and you end up wearing a bonbon. Sweet, really. Another puzzling one was being told that this particular restaurant was very hype, mispronounced ‘[h]ip’. I then realised in coming across it in magazine reviews that this was being used to mean what we would indeed term ‘hip’ in English – fashionable, trendy. Maybe it had occurred because the places it was applied to had been the subject of ‘hype’, and the two concepts got mixed up, with meaning and pronunciation ending up meshed in a nonsensical way. You can easily get lost in the labyrinth of language…

Beyond issues of translation, you become aware of the conceptual distance between the two languages, some examples of which are mystifying and occasionally entertaining (the latter being an example of this itself as I don’t think amusant conveys the same meaning). French people, it appears, don’t ‘look forward to’ anything, or at least they have to use a lot more words to express something akin to it but even that to my mind is a long way from what is meant in English and how often it is used. Nor can you tell them to 'enjoy it' – there is no way that profitez-en bien (the closest I can think of) has the same connotations. It’s more to do with ‘making the most of it’, which has less implication of delight to be had. Going in the other direction, why is there no English word for frileux/frileuse? English, usually pithier than French, has to use more words and say ‘sensitive to the cold’.

This is in danger of turning into a nerdy disquisition on the intricacies of coping with two languages but difficult to avoid, as I have spent a lot of my life wrestling with words (sometimes desperately...), first as a learner of a second language, briefly as a teacher, and for a long time working as an editor in publishing. Come to think of it, I did also, at least for a few years in my ‘alternative side activity’ as a psychotherapy counsellor, spend quite a bit of time listening to others wrestling with words too.

Before leaving this theme, I will allow myself the indulgence of venting a little about two personal bugbears (maybe the mention of counselling has triggered this off). I will do this in an ‘equal-opportunity’ way by castigating both sides – and inevitably there will be some generalisation.

First, I have never understood why so many French people when speaking English don’t even try to at least approximate the ‘sound’ and intonation of English. I recently heard a renowned French academic, based in the States, speaking fluently and at length about her subject (immigration and wages) in grammatically perfect English – but an English that for a few seconds sounded to my ears like French. It did not have the rhythm and sound of English; it was just a flat flow but made up of often mispronounced English words. Weird, especially as what she was saying was very interesting. It was not just the use of ‘ze’ or the missing non-silent aitches but many basic (which, by the way, she insisted on pronouncing ‘baahsic’) mistakes in words she must have heard correctly spoken hundreds of times by students and colleagues. How come she did not take any notice? I once had to brief a French woman who came in as a supply teacher. She spoke in a similar fashion to the academic. To make polite conversation, I asked her how long she had been in England, expecting a relatively recent arrival. Her response was, “Oh, I ’ave bin ’ere sirty yirss.” And I wondered, was it thirty years of deliberate resistance (but to what purpose?) or simply a kind of linguistic tone deafness? Whatever the reason for this deficiency, it has at least been a gift to comedy writers.

My other bugbear is the native English speaker’s wanton use of idiomatic expressions that are bound to be opaque to their foreign interlocutors. This is particularly prevalent on the part of highly educated people and it has made me cringe on many occasions in my professional life in international publishing. I am making up these examples as I do not recall the details of actual long-past incidents, but they are not far-fetched. It is embarrassing to hear someone answering a stumbling, “How are you?” from, say, a Spanish collaborator with, “Fit as a fiddle!” And then to tell them that you can’t make a delivery “at the drop of a hat” and that they should “cut you some slack”. Or even that they should just “bite the bullet”, otherwise it could be the “last straw” and you’d have to “call it a day”. Taking a leaf (ha!) from the famous Manuel in Fawlty Towers, my poor hypothetical Spaniard would be fully justified in reacting with a bewildered and possibly irascible “Qué?” And one last petty point – please don’t talk to foreigners of ‘bank holidays’ (“Oh, you have special days when banks are closed?”), call them what they are in every other country: public holidays.

Having got all this off my chest (yes, it’s difficult to avoid...), it is time to close on a more positive note. In spite of all the hurdles, some of them insurmountable, learning another language is of huge benefit. A second language is not just for communication, it opens mental doors, gives access to new vistas of existence, develops a new state of mind. You think differently, you feel differently, you add a new layer to your whole being.

For me, learning English was also a form of emotional exile. It allowed me an escape from my post-Algerian traumas, from the profound ambivalence I was suffering from about living in France and being French. It had been symbolic of travelling in my teenage years, of escaping the narrow confines of a provincial town. And when permanently moving to Britain, it was a way of turning a page, of starting afresh – of immersing myself in another universe, shedding at least some of the burden of my childhood. As with many other aspects of my move to Britain, it was a kind of liberation. I did not fall in love just with the country, I loved the language too.

This is a slightly edited version of a chapter from To This Northern Shore, Pieces of a life from South to North, a memoir, by Jean-Luc Barbanneau, published by Lexus Books.

Jean-Luc Barbanneau was born in Algiers, of French, Italian and Spanish descent. Part of his childhood coincided with the Algerian war of independence. The dramatic outcome of this conflict led to a first exile to France. As a student in Paris, he was involved in the événements of May 1968 and then moved to the UK. After a few years teaching in Brighton, he began a long career in publishing in London and Oxford. He now lives on the east coast of Scotland, near Edinburgh.


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