Monday, June 16, 2008

I'm sorry, I don't speak French

It's funny how people here usually assume that my accent is French. I don't know how many times people here in Ontario have asked me if I'm French, if the language I speak to my daughter is French, or even if I'm from Quebec. Canada is such a multicultural country that you might think that people have heard several accents, but somehow they all make the same assumption about a strange accent or a foreign language.

Actually, I don't speak French at all. I don't even understand many words. By several months of exposure to bilingual food packaging I have picked up some useful phrases like "sans gras trans" (no trans fat) or "farine de blé complet" (whole wheat flour), but I don't know how to pronounce them.

Last week I was in Quebec, for a conference. In case you don't know, Quebec is a French-speaking province. One funny thing I noticed was that my own accent got worse when I had another language around me all the time. It has happened before, but it feels very strange. I also experienced the following funny situation:


[The scene is a café at lunchtime. I have successfully ordered a sandwich from a young man, and now I'm looking undecidedly at the bottles in the fridge behind the counter, and another young man waits for my order.]

Me: Umm... Apple juice, please.

Cashier: I speak English, if that helps.

Me, very confused: Well, so do I actually!

[Confused pause.]

Me: OK, so can I order an apple juice?

Cashier: Was that all?

Me: Actually, the juice is for my daughter. For myself... I'll just have a glass of water, please.

[I get my sandwich, and a glass of water, and pay the sum I'm asked for. There is something missing on my tray.]

Me: So, what happened to the apple juice?

Cashier: Did you want apple juice?


After this I felt slightly humiliated. Is my English so bad that people mistake it for tourist French? And is it so difficult to understand it when I say "apple juice"?

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