Whenever I pause to think about it, I’m always surprised at how easy it is to switch back and forth between French and English. Before living here, I’d expected it to be a lot more difficult keeping my languages straight. When I stayed with a French family in Royan during a summer in high school I spoke French the entire time. I remember speaking to my parents on the phone and answering them with “ouais, ouais” without realizing what I was saying.
It’s a little bit funny to me that living alone in Paris I end up speaking as much English as I speak French. It’s always English with my au pair kids, although I switch to French sometimes with Georges because he gets confused about which language he’s supposed to be speaking, and I speak French with Irma the housekeeper.
It’s always French at Sciences Po, except for certain times working in groups with other international students. For the most part students from other parts of the world learned English before they learned French, and we accomplish a lot more work speaking in English.
In stores, restaurants and museums it’s always French – when I first got here I felt like I was really obviously an American, and people would answer me in English when I tried to speak to them in French. Since August though, I’ve become much more comfortable speaking casually and familiarly (rather than with the perfect grammar and high tenses we practice in school), and I think I’ve started to blend in enough that while people know I’m foreign, they can’t immediately place me. I mostly get mistaken for being Spanish or Italian (i.e., the Franprix guy from yesterday) – though once someone assumed me for Irish.
With friends, it just depends. I always speak French with Sonia (French) from my hip-hop class, but with Ana (Portugese) it’s always English. I speak French with Alex (German) and Anna (Polish), my partners in my European Union class, but I always speak English with Rubens (French). There was no specific decision involved in any of these cases, it’s just whichever language we happened to start speaking the first time we met, I guess.
My art history class is taught in English and my professor is from NYU, so we speak to her in English and do anything official for class in English. Because the majority of the class is French though, we speak in French to each other (even during class), and any emails to the class mailing list are always in French.
I obviously speak to Rachael in English, except when we’re hanging out with her roommate Vita – Vita is Russian and doesn’t speak any English, so it’s French only when she’s around. Last night Rachael and Vita had a party (kind of a late housewarming) and all night conversations were switching between Russian, English, French and Spanish. There were people who spoke French and English only, people who spoke Russian and English only, people who spoke Russian and French only, and an infinite number of other combinations, so you had to feel out every new person who joined a conversation.
I walked home with a boy who is Franco-Español, but who speaks excellent English. During the forty-minute walk we spoke the whole time in French-English-French-English, and the conversation was surprisingly fluid. As long as you’re comfortable in both the languages you’re speaking in, it’s pretty easy to get by like that. For the most part, the party was an odd mélange of French and English, French being a common language because we’re all living in France, and English because it’s a language that everyone educated over here feels that they have to learn.
If you are European and you’re interested in politics, business, teaching, anything that involves speaking to people, you have to be able to speak English to secure a good job. It’s one of the first things you’ll be asked in a job interview, and you have a very slim chance of going far in the business world if you can’t speak at least some English.
It’s fun hanging out at Rachael and Vita’s apartment because Vita lived here all last year, and she has a big group of Franco-Russian friends. Rachael has been kind of passively tapped into the Russians-in-Paris community, and goes with Vita to Russian film festivals, to hear Russian music and to hang out with other Russians living here.
I, on the other hand, have been tapped into the mixed (Franco-American) family community. My au pair family has a social circle of half-and-half families, many of whom employ American nannies, and I’ve been rotating through the American-nannies-in-Paris circuit. Ella takes dance classes at l’Académie Américaine de Danse de Paris, and as I do homework in the lobby every Monday evening while she’s dancing, I’ve been getting to know even more Franco-American nannies, moms and dance teachers. At the Académie, I speak French with half the nannies/parents I meet, and English with the other half.
I answer my phone with “Oui, hello?” because I never know who might be calling me. Even with all the switching back and forth between languages, I haven’t found myself getting confused. I think it makes it easier on my mind that I always know where I’ll be speaking English and where I’ll be speaking French. My au pair kids have the same system. Growing up in a bilingual family is confusing, so to make it as simple as possible, they always know exactly with who and where they’ll be speaking each language. They speak English at home except to their father and Irma. It’s French at school, and for Paul and Zoë it’s French with their piano and guitar teachers. Ella speaks English with her flute teacher and at the Académie, but her dance teacher speaks a crazy mix of French and English to accommodate the different students.
“One two, trois quatre, cinq six, seven eight!”
I really do love speaking in French. It really is fun to speak in a language that’s not your own – I feel like I’m figuring out a puzzle everytime I have a conversation with someone.
••• The third Thursday of November is a special night every year in France, because it’s the official release of the Beaujolais Nouveau for the year. There were parties in the street all night with people drinking the new wine. Every year there’s a different taste to it, and this year it’s supposed to be “gout de banane.” Yeah, banana-wine. We had a bottle last night to try it out and it was actually really good – and actually kind of banana-y.