In North Africa we met a man who had lived in Munich for eight years and spoke passable German. We asked him whether he had had any problems settling in and being accepted there. No, he hadn’t, he replied, and went on to say that he had found out pretty soon that there are two things foreigners in Germany have to do in order to get by: do decent work and try to learn German. You don’t have to get perfect with the language (with the work, it’s another matter ;-). He said Germans know their language isn’t that easy. But they’re happy as long as you show some effort.
He’s right. Around here, it’s very different. It’s forbidden to stammer around in French. You’re expected to get it halfway right. A friend of ours who as a native English speaker has difficulties with the difference between u and ü [u and y in phonetics] finds herself getting ignored time and again because she’s so hard to understand. That can be tough.
It’s forbidden to stammer around in French.
Our latest experience: We’re giving a lecture on linguistics – complete with our tried and tested PowerPoint presentation, of course. We’ve had it translated and corrected. Nevertheless, after the well-received lecture which generated a lively Q&A a woman approaches Mike and asks officiously whether she can correct our presentation. Mike has to do some steady breathing to keep himself from groaning loudly or rudely sending her off. So she puts in her corrections – not just errors, but also stylistic details. That’s typical! You are allowed to make mistakes – but not forever and, above all, not in public and in written form! Plus, there are three different language levels: high, standard and familiar. The way we talk is mostly on the familiar level, of course, because that’s what you hear on the streets – but Heaven forbid we should write that way! So everything gets corrected.
It takes Mike three days to get over it. First of all, being no perfectionist at all he’s not too bothered about mistakes. Besides, the corrections took a while of course, which meant he wasn’t available to answer questions, which is very important in our experience. But he couldn’t get rid of the woman…
Another area in which the French value a similarly high standard is food. There are always several courses which have to fit well together. It’s been known to happen – I’ve seen it happen myself – that foreigners were denied service in a restaurant because the waiter didn’t like their menu choices. You don’t make any money that way, but the French don’t work at any price. Admirable attitude, in a way!