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Learning to Speak French with a Mask

I moved to France three years ago, speaking rusty high-school French and ready to live large.

But, as it turns out, what I learned 30 years ago in Mrs. Witte’s French class isn’t quite what they’re speaking on the streets of Paris today. It was rough. I embarrassed myself daily. But, with the frequent corrections from merchants and friends, and the classes I took at Alliance Française, my French improved. 

Two women sit on a bench by Paris's Canal St. Martin and speak to each other while wearing face masks.
Jamie Rolston

By the beginning of 2020, I was getting the hang of it. I stopped making mistakes like telling people “I’m horny” (“Je suis chaude”) instead of “I’m hot” (“J’ai chaud”). I could order food in restaurants (including specifics about done-ness and wine pairings). I could chit chat with friends about politics, movies, books, music. I even started to understand quick little sentences like “Hand me that thing” or “You ready to go?” from people who weren’t facing me. I still made a lot of mistakes, but my inhibitions were falling away. My confidence was growing.

One thing I couldn’t do, though, was talk on the phone.

Without eye contact, gestures, grimaces, and smiles, my French comprehension was terrible. That made me nervous, so my ability to express myself tanked during phone calls. I didn’t answer unknown numbers unless I was expecting a delivery or a repairman, letting calls go to voicemail and getting friends to interpret. If I had to make a call, I wrote out all the pertinent vocabulary first and rehearsed the conversation with whoever was around, pacing and deep breathing. It wasn’t a great system, but I got by.

Left: The sun sets in Paris, casting shadows from Parisian apartment balconies, Right: An empty street in Paris during the quiet summer month of August.
Jamie Rolston

Then Covid-19 happened. Now, we live in masks. And it’s like talking on the phone all the time.

Not only are there no smiles or grimaces or lip-reading, the French are also incredibly reserved in their body language. They’re not natural pointers. They don’t do charades. Shrugging is their most expressive gesture. 

And, they can’t hear me either. The mask muffles the sound, and I don’t have a very big voice anyway. Pardons and drawn-together eyebrows are frequent on both sides now.

People sit socially distanced from each other at outdoor tables at a café near Rue de Montorgueil in the center of Paris.
Jamie Rolston

This means every trip to the butcher is like a phone call, except I can point to the pork chops and hold up two fingers while I yell “deux côtes, s’il vous plaît.” When I need matching cheeses for my apéro tray, I only understand part of their explanation,“bluh bluh moins douce mais bluh bluh plus ageé bluh bluh bluh,“ so after a while I just point to whatever looks good. I can still order in restaurants because customers can take off their masks while seated. But, if the server has any tricky questions about choices of sides, or needs to tell me they’re out of something, it gets dicey.

Left: A woman wearing a face masks browses through books at a store in Paris, Right: A shot of Parisian balconies as seen from the street.
Coba Photography

So what’s a foreigner to do? There’s no chapter in my trusty Grammaire française book about masked conversations. Mrs. Witte never covered this in 10th grade. Even if speaking your native language is more challenging with a mask, the French don’t seem to be doing anything besides repeating themselves at the same volume and speed.

I guess I’ll just keep going. I’ll keep bugging my friends to explain all those idioms they use. I’ll keep reading French novels, scribbling new vocabulary in the margins. I’ll keep struggling through all that mail from the Préfecture, then running it through Google translate to see if I got it right.

A man wearing a face mask sits at a table in a café in central Paris.
Jamie Rolston

Because I wasn’t counting on a pandemic when I moved to France. It’s just not one of the challenges I thought I’d face. But here we are, floundering through this together. I’m still alive and healthy, as are my loved ones. So, maybe we’ll be patient with each other. Maybe we’ll repeat ourselves more often. Maybe I’ll learn to speak louder and enunciate.

And maybe I’ll get better at talking on the phone.

Written by Yvonne Hazelton Shao for HiP Paris. Looking to travel? Check out Haven In for a  fabulous vacation rental in Paris, France or Italy. Looking to rent long-term or buy in France or Italy? Ask us! We can connect you to our trusted providers for amazing service and rates.

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