Friday, November 28, 2008

Funny in French

I ran into an English friend, Matt Beer, the other day and asked how his French was coming along. Not so good, was the reply. It turns out that Matt, one of the funnier people I know, still finds it virtually impossible to be funny in French. Because I’m also one of the funnier people I know, I totally relate. I asked Matt to write a little something about that and here’s what he sent.

So the question remains--how does London’s greatest wit turn into Eygalières' village idiot and, perhaps more importantly, why was he so self-delusional in the first place?

The idiot is me and the question remains unanswered. Let me explain. I’ve now been living in France for over seven years and yet when it comes to speaking French--you know, the correct use of the past tense and pronunciation of the word “feuille”—I’m currently locked in an epic battle with my daughter’s pet hamster for the honorary title of “least conversant family member.”

When chatting away at a dinner party, once I’ve discussed how sunny it was yesterday, I’ve run out of conversation. Suffering from acute embarrassment, I invariably get nervous, over-react, bring up the issue of Vichy France and never get invited again.

The excuses? Well…

We only speak English at home--true except when the family want to verbally abuse me and speak in French.

I work solely with English-speaking clients--true except when the clients want to verbally abuse me and speak in French.

I have never been on a language course--true as I wanted to avoid the humiliation of being asked to redoubler.

I have absolutely no aptitude for languages--very true.

My wife has explained to me that when I listen to a song I hear the melody and not the words. She has the opposite problem. Sometimes we merge our skills, sing a song together and embarrass the kids. But, nevertheless, I do believe she has a point. I just don’t hear the language. Add in the Provencal accent and this particular Englishman is dead in the water.

So what to do? Answer--nothing. Just enjoy the hospitality offered to me by some wonderful French friends, never again mention Petain and try at the very least to keep up with the hamster.

Oh and for any French readers “Il faisait tres beau hier, n’est pas?”

Being a qualified divorce lawyer for 15 years, Matt Beer decided to divorce himself from reality and move from London to Provence. He continues to run a legal practice and is also a screenwriter for film and television. He lives in Eygalières with his wife, Annie, and their kids Zazie and Sam. He can be reached at:


  1. Do not despair, Matt.

    I have been in France 14 years. Although for 25 years prior to that I had to decipher southern drawl from plain American, it was hardly preparation for what I have found.

    First, I agree that French people do not listen to melodies. Their auditive functions must somehow be rewired to their occipital lobes. I can follow any amount of complexity up to when somebody turns to me and makes an off-the-cuff remark that somehow implies intimacy.

    Second, I agree with the problem of French wives. You do not say your wife is French, but then nobody in their right minds would live in the shadow of the Alpilles unless they were desperately in love and thoroughly fed up with city life.

    Thirdly, and finally, you may now speak English at home (as we still do) but with four kids and a French wife, our common language is more and more a matter of negociation.

  2. hi matt. you sound like you are quite content and do not need any advice, but have you heard of the tomatis method of ear training? It is fascinating and trains one to hear the distinct and different vibrations of each language. as a musician this makes complete sense to me.
    there is a centre in paris, and one in marseille i think. i have friends who have learned to speak the msuci of the langauge very quickly, not just the words. as to the humour, i have made several good jokes now in French. I think they stop and contrepetries which I find very unfunny! I guess we'll just have to keep it at home!

  3. As a French reader I don't want to be rude but will correct the mistake: "Il faisait beau hier, n'est CE pas ?" Very handy sentence in fact as Provence is a ever sunny country! :o)

    Again as French I fully understand your difficulties as I lived abroad several years (in english-american environment) and I do not hear the lyrics of songs but mostly melody. Everybody told me "listen to English music, you'll learn the language easy"... Peanuts !

    Changing topic my return to my home country is quite more difficult than I expected and would appreciate the contact of english-american expats in France. If you live close to Lyon and wants to meet a true French, able to handle a conversation and giving good pedagogic French grammar tips (I teach to my wife too) reach me all day on 06 61 25 07 13