French Passing

The fellow at the gas station in Montreal where they fixed the tire, who looked like the middle age son of the owner, saw that the car was from New York, and wanted to talk about his snowmobile buddies in Alden & Binghampton, the ones he met in Saranac Lake.  It was nice, as if somehow, the fact I was from the states took me off the hook for rudeness.

As I left him, instead of “Thank you,” I said “Merci.”  When I am in Montreal, I feel badly I can’t speak French, but I do change my social words to ‘Excusez Moi” and “Merci.”

“Aha!” he smiled.  “You speak French!”

I think what he was telling me is that he was pleased I wasn’t one of those people who think everyone else has an obligation to speak their language.  It was the same as the AAA service guy, who just wanted to be able to communicate and not to be yelled at in English.

I tried, to say what I could, but I have to admit that saying these words in French felt like passing.

Even after six years of high school French (three years of French I and three years of French II), I have no real handle at all, even if I can pick up some words.  I make sure I am looking at the cash when the clerk rattles off the total, because while I know my numbers, at that speed in joual, well, I need to look at the display.

But I make my attempt, and I make the sound, and when someone understands, it seems baffling.

There was a woman who did all the trade show presentations for Sun Microsystems, in all the languages.  Her trick was simple; once she had a tape of the presentation, it played in her ear and she just repeated it phonetically.  I suppose this even helped in English, where the technical jargon may have been as uncomprehensible to her as the Spanish translation.

I can do this too, listen in the IFB and and repeat what I hear, as if I was thinking it.  I remember one meeting where I had to talk to someone about Unix internals and report back.  Before I started, I told the group “Don’t interrupt me and don’t ask questions; I’m just going to play back what I heard,” and then launched into the recitation.  There was laughter and applause when I finished, breathless.

Still, I was surprised at how much the attempts at French felt like passing, and surprised again at how much the people I used them on understood and appreciated my efforts.

I think that there is some kind of lesson about trusting the performance in there, but right now, waiting for my mother to decide what she wants to do today, well, it escapes me.