When I was living in Paris, my native English brain heard French spoken by the people I passed on the street, saw it on the signs on the Metro, read it in Le Monde, L’Equipe, and other major daily newspapers, and for most interactions, spoke it with others. With the exception of when I talked to my family and friends back home on Skype or chatted with my American roommates after a long day of teaching, I was speaking French, and this action propelled my brain into a battle of English vs. French.
Thinking in English, Speaking in French
The toughest step to learning a language, and a good indicator of when you’ve become fluent, is beginning to think in that language. In order to do this, you have to turn off the translation step, the part where you ask yourself, “What is the ___ equivalent of this word/phrase?” and your brain searches for it, and then you speak it. To have a genuine, back-and-forth dialogue in a language, there is no time for this step.
Think about it this way: pretend you’re telling a story to a friend in English.
You say: “I saw Sally at the market today, and she told me that she and Dave are moving to New York!”
Your friend responds with: “Oh, wow! Did she say when they’re moving?”
What if, after your friend asked you that question, you wanted to respond with, “In 3 months,” but you couldn’t remember what the number three was in English; you could only remember its French equivalent. At that point in the conversation, there would be a pause as you searched for the English word. Because we can’t always anticipate what another person will say in a conversation, we have to have the resources, the words, to be able to pivot as the conversation shifts. We can’t pivot if we’re stuck in our heads searching for the translation of what we want to say. We have to think of what we want to say by using words that mean what they are. Meaning, three is simply three, not trois (the French word for three) translated into three.
The funniest part of the process of arriving at thinking in French, which I can proudly say I was able to do after years of studying the language in the U.S. and then living in France, was when my brain could think in French for some of the words, and in English for others. The result was a combined language that my roommates and I affectionally termed Franglais.
There are some French words that have been used so often in the English language that they’ve actually become part of the English language, and the same is true for English words used in the French language.
Examples of Franglais
Here are 5 words that have switched languages:
- Déjà vu
This phrase, translated into French as “Already seen,” is used in English to represent when we’ve either seen something happen or something has happened to us before. In English, it seems to have a bit of a supernatural, or superstitious connotation, because it’s often used as, “I feel like I have déjà vu,” almost as if the person saying it is skeptical. In French, that’s not the case.
The common request for a response to an invitation as an RSVP is an acronym of a French phrase. The phrase, “Répondez s’il vous plait” means “Please respond.”
- Hors d’oeuvres
This French food category is common on American menus for weddings and special events. Used to mean smaller portions of food that are either stationary or passed around before the main meal, it translates into French as “outside of work,” which could mean “outside of the main work” or “outside of the main meal.”
Though the definition of this acronym is debatable (see: Scientific American), it is used in French to convey the same meaning: a wireless Internet connection. In France, I’ve heard Wi-Fi pronounced most commonly as “wee-fee,” though some French speakers will pronounce the term with the English pronunciation of “why-figh.”
Though there is a phrase in French that means the end of the week, “la fin de la semaine,” there isn’t a phrase to represent that part of the week that bookends the end of the week and the beginning of the next. Thus, the French use the English word, pronounced with English pronunciation.
What are some of your favorite foreign words that exist in your native language? Comment below!