The Economist recently published an article on a study about the worth of a foreign language. To briefly summarize: the overwhelming negative listed against the better decision-making and cognitive development positives was an underwhelming 2% premium on earnings to Americans – with French, Spanish and English earning different premiums.This had me thinking about my experience with speaking a foreign language in a foreign country.
These days the words flow easier. I no longer phrase, re-phrase and edit my sentences, silently trying them out in my head before I blurt them out. I am not yet dreaming in French, but I am at least thinking in it – there is less mangling of my articles and verbs, and an easier switching from English to French. On some days I do not have the energy to conjugate the conditionnel and on others the plus-que-parfait just stumps me.
Speaking a foreign language requires energy, significant alertness and constant levels of concentration. On the good days I am like the language Energizer bunny, on others, Franglais (a convenient mix of French and English words) flows easier off my tongue, and on the worst days I speak in perfectly enunciated English only.
Thirteen years ago, in the early days of the opening up of Europe when foreigners were still viewed with much suspicion, my English-accented French was grudgingly tolerated; these days speaking English earns me better service than it did back then. Sales people are more tolerant of my average French, and even quicker to make the switch to English. Sparing me further embarrassment or saving their language? I still haven’t figured out which one it is.
Government officers are not as easily won over though, but I have also learnt that when dealing with civil servants, start with your best French; maybe use a sprinkling of Franglais –and even then only if you’re truly stuck – but never, ever use English. They are still as quick to dismiss you if you flaunt your foreignness by not using their language.
The good service I get is all a matter of economics. I represent the expat, but not the immigrant. Fact is, no matter where you are in the world, that distinction earns you a certain kind of treatment. I am not here to steal jobs from the French, or burden the country’s social services. If anything I inadvertently wield potential spending power. That is what earns me better service, not my engaging personality. Knowing this, I am happily playing along to the script: I greet and exchange niceties in French, make a few enquiries in some light Franglais, and then make my switch to English, all depending on how quickly and efficiently I want to be served. Speaking a foreign language carries quite the premium for me in France, and for now I am milking it for all it’s worth.
This article was initially published on African Writing blogs as “Why speaking English gets me better service in most places in France.”