Tag Archives: humeur

Languages

Before leaving India in the late eighties, I could speak a bit of Hindi as my third language. English was the second language, and Malayalam my mother tongue. I wasn’t fluent in Hindi by any stretch of imagination, but I could speak it well enough to get rid of a door-to-door salesman, for instance.

This is exactly what my father (a confirmed Hindi-phobe) asked me to do during one of my visits home when a persistent, Hindi-speaking sari salesman was hovering over our front porch. By that time, I had spent over six years in the US (and considered my English very good) and a couple of years in France (enough to know that “very good English” was no big deal). So to get rid of the sari-wala, I started to talk to him in Hindi, and the strangest thing happened — it was all French that was coming out. Not my mother tongue, not my second or third language, but French! In short, there was very confused sari salesman roaming the streets that day.

True, there is some similarity between Hindi and French, for instance, in the sounds of interrogative words, and the silly masculine-feminine genders of neutral objects. But I don’t think that was what was causing the outpouring of Frenchness. It felt as though French had replaced Hindi in my brain. Whatever brain cells of mine that were wired up to speak Hindi (badly, I might add) were being rewired a la franciaise! Some strange resource allocation mechanism was recycling my brain cells without my knowledge or consent. I think this French invasion in my brain continued unabated and assimilated a chunk of my English cells as well. The end result was that my English got all messed up, and my French never got good enough. I do feel a bit sorry for my confused brain cells. Karma, I guess — I shouldn’t have confused the sari salesman.

Though spoken in jest, I think what I said is true — the languages that you speak occupy distinct sections of your brain. A friend of mine is a French-American girl from the graduate years. She has no discernable accent in her Americanese. Once she visited me in France, and I found that whenever she used an English word while speaking French, she had a distinct French accent. It was as though the English words came out of the French section of her brain.

Of course, languages can be a tool in the hands of the creative. My officemate in France was a smart English chap who steadfastly refused to learn any French at all, and actively resisted any signs of French assimilation. He never uttered a French word if he could help it. But then, one summer, two English interns showed up. My officemate was asked to mentor them. When these two girls came to our office to meet him, this guy suddenly turned bilingual and started saying something like, “Ce qu’on fait ici.. Oh, sorry, I forgot that you didn’t speak French!”

Belle Piece

Here is a French joke that is funny only in French. I present it here as a puzzle to my English-speaking readers.

This colonel in the French army was in the restroom. As he was midway through the business of relieving his bladder, he becomes aware of this tall general standing next to him, and realizes that it is none other than Charles De Gaulle. Now, what do you do when you find yourself a sort of captive audience next to your big boss for a couple of minutes? Well, you have to make smalltalk. So this colonel rakes his brain for a suitable subject. Noticing that the restroom is a classy tip-top joint, he ventures:

“Belle piece!” (“Nice room!”)

CDG’s ice-cold tone indicates to him the enormity of the professional error he has just committed:

“Regardez devant vous.” (“Don’t peek!”)

La pauvre famille

[English version below]

Je connaissais une petite fille très riche. Un jour, son professeur lui a demandé de faire une rédaction sur une famille pauvre. La fille était étonnée:

“Une famille pauvre?! Qu’est-ce que c’est ça?”

Elle a demandé à sa mère:

“Maman, Maman, qu’est-ce que c’est une famille pauvre? Je n’arrive pas à faire ma rédaction.”

La mère lui a répondu:

“C’est simple, chérie. Une famille est pauvre quand tout le monde dans la famille est pauvre”

La petite fille a pensé:

“Ah! Ce n’est pas difficile”

et elle a fait sa rédaction. Le lendemain, le professeur lui a dit:

“Bon, lis-moi ta rédaction.”

Voici la réponse:

“Une famille pauvre. Il était une fois une famille pauvre. Le père était pauvre, la mère était pauvre, les enfants étaient pauvres, le jardinier était pauvre, le chauffeur était pauvre, les bonnes étaient pauvres. Voilà, la famille était très pauvre!”

In English

I once knew a rich girl. One day, her teacher at school asked her to write a piece on a poor family. The girl was shocked. “What in the world is a poor family?”

So she asked her mother, “Mummy, mummy, you’ve got to help me with my composition. What is a poor family?”

Her mother said, “That’s really simple, sweetheart. A family is poor when everybody in the family is poor.”

The rich girl thought, “Aha, that is not too difficult,” and she wrote up a piece.

The next day, her teacher asked her, “Well, let’s hear your composition.”

Here is what the girl said, “A Poor Family. Once upon a time, there was a poor family. The father was poor, the mother was poor, the children were poor, the gardener was poor, the driver was poor, the maids were poor. So the family was very poor!”