It happened when I was travelling in Belgium with another English assistant Vicki. Vicki like me is an English assistant in France and speaks very good French – but we’ve always spoken in English with each other. So when she turned to me and asked ‘On est-ou?’ (where are we?) my first reaction was…
WHY ARE YOU SPEAKING TO ME IN FRENCH???
Then I found out that it’s not only me she speaks to in French, but everyone – even the English-speaking assistants. Besides it feeling extremely un-natural to speak in anything but English to another Australian (or any other English speaker) I’ve started to think it may not be a great idea.
Here’s my reasoning
- A few years ago I lived in Finland and there were a lot of Erasmus students who came from every country in Europe. Of course the only language everyone had in common was English. So I often heard non-native English speakers speaking in English to each other.
- A lot of them spoke great English, but of course it wasn’t their mother tongue – so of course they often made mistakes
- The problem was that when they made a mistake in English while talking to a Spaniard was that the Spanish person didn’t hear the mistakes they made. Whether it was a grammar problem, vocabulary or pronunciation – often only a native English speaker or an English teacher would pick up on the mistakes
- And even if the non-native English speaker did hear what they thought was a mistake, they probably won’t feel they have the confidence or the right to correct you. I for one never feel comfortable correcting someone’s French – I’m not a native speaker, so it’s hard to be absolutely certain
- On top of that, if you keep speaking French to other non-native French speakers then you may learn mistakes. You might copy their slightly dodgy pronunciation, grammar or non-native accent – and just add mistakes rather than avoid them.
- But when you speak French to a native French person, you have the opportunity to hear and learn the rhythm of the language, the accent, the stress, grammar, pronunciation – and if they’re really nice they’ll probably kindly correct your mistakes. But you won’t get that with an English speaker.
Exceptions to My Rule
Of course there have been times when I’ve had to speak in French with an English speaker. Like when I went to a French family’s house for dinner, one of my Irish friends was there but we weren’t going to be rude and talk in English to each other when no one else could understand us.
There are also times when I have to speak in French with non-native French speakers because like the Erasmus students before me, it’s the only language we have in common. All the Spanish assistants I’ve met for example don’t speak English but they do speak French. There’s no point in refusing to speak to them in French unless they were fluent in English.
So now it is me who is the non-native French speaker who speaks broken and awkward French to other French learners. The shoe is truly on the other foot.