In England, the more illustrious your qualifications, the more you play them down. Thus, in my old workplace, if a colleague were to be forced into admitting that they had a mere smattering of Latin, you knew to brace yourself to be on the receiving end of various erudite “jokes” delivered in conversant Latin and probably also Ancient Greek. In France, on the other hand, engaging in self-deprecation is a risky business because of the probability that you will be taken seriously. I discovered this to my cost when I turned up the first rehearsal of an ensemble in which I play my ‘cello and said of a fiendish passage that I had practised to death that I’d barely glanced at it. I was met with looks of utter disgust and was forced to explain that it was just une blague in order to prevent myself being fired without ever having played a single note.
A few weeks ago, I found myself being complimented by an acquaintance on my level of French. Caught off guard by the flattery, I instinctively indulged in some light self-deprecation, to the effect that, au contraire, I’d barely mastered the basics. My interlocutor looked at me askance: she knew something was not quite right with what I had said, but was not quite sure what. And then she uttered the immortal phrase: c’est vrai, tu sais, avec le chinois, le français est la langue la plus difficile du monde.
Bingo. For a second there I had thought that my false modesty had been misunderstood and that, once again, I was going to have to embark upon a round of humiliating and doomed explanations of my strange sense of humour. But evidently not, for here was a person who had met my disingenuous self-criticism with her own biting sarcasm. So, after a lengthy pause for me to complete this thought process, I roared with laughter… French, the hardest language: pull the other one! It was only after this burst of hilarity had become quite raucous and prolonged that I looked at the person I was laughing with and realised that she was not laughing at all: indeed, she wore the hurt expression of someone who was being laughed at, for reasons she did not comprehend.
In that split second I realised a) that she had been deadly serious about the French language being, along with Chinese, the most difficult language in the world, and b) that I had just consigned my budding friendship with her to history. Even as I struggled (and ultimately failed) to excuse myself for my bizarre and rude behaviour, I began to turn this over in my mind. Was this woman alone in believing that French was one of the two most difficult languages in the world? For whom was French so difficult, and was it equally difficult for everyone around the world? And where o where had this touching notion come from in the first place?
I have been surreptitiously carrying out my inquiries ever since and have discovered that this woman is not alone in believing that her language presents those wishing to speak it, including francophones, with almost insurmountable difficulties. Indeed, even as one of my students has been in the process of destroying the English language, he has expressed the view that English is really the easiest language ever invented, whereas French is quite impossible. Unable to rise above the extreme affront that I felt under these trying circumstances, I quizzed this student about why he thought this. He looked at me as if I were really quite half-witted and explained, slowly and loudly, that in French there is conjugaison and there are les accords, but in English we don’t conjugate and our nouns are not gendered. Did he not think, though, that for a Spaniard, for example, the similarities between the structures of the two languages might make French really quite straightforward, where Arabic, or Thai, or Hindi, or Amharic might seem quite challenging by contrast? No, he was quite confident, without speaking any of those other languages, that French was more difficult that any of them in any context.
In the end the origins of such bizarre pronouncements turned out not to be all that mysterious. Our eldest daughter came home from school one day with instructions to learn how to conjugate various irregular verbs in the future tense. Despite being able to do it on her first attempt she insisted that I test her once again because, she solemnly intoned, conjugation made French one of the hardest languages in the world and it was important that she concentrated very hard to get it right. So it was that I discovered that the cult of the complexity of the French language in itself forms part of the French curriculum. This notion might make me chortle but it has its advantages: every time I fluff my tenses I toss it nonchalantly into the conversation and, instead of squints of incomprehension, I get nods of sympathy. My French may not be perfect but, given the intricacies of the language, I am doing exceptionally well ever to have got past bonjour.
I can really recommend this post on the London School of English blog on the way British people view the English spoken by non-natives.
For some thoughts on the relationship between the French and English languages you would do well to start here.
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If you are interested in discovering other blogs about life in France, you could visit the #AllAboutFrance linkup on the LouMessugo blog.