Ici, on parle français

Upon leaving Morocco and landing in France, I found myself stumbling to produce the appropriate words to complete my sentences. There were instances when my vocabulary would scramble, for instance, shukran to replace merci or feen? to replace où?  There were also the cultural slip of the tongues, so to speak. Expressions that had become commonplace in my speech, such as the humdillahs and inshallahs, used to express gratitude and uncertainty respectively, which would smuggle their way into my sentences.

For a few days my brain seemed like it was totally scrambled and confused, and to add a degree or two of socio-political unease, the current relationship between Maghreban immigrants in France and the French could be described, from my point of view, as “rather intolerant.” Thus, I was a loaded gun ready to offend not only the French with my shukrans, but also the Maghrebans who would inevitably look at me and assume my mix up was mockery. Awesome.

It raised some rather poignant questions for me, however, about the fluidity of languages across borders, especially concerning the hot topic—immigration. As a third party, neither French nor Arab, how would those around me take my use of the Arabic language? Would it be taken with malice? How would my Caucasian appearance play a role? What is it like for immigrants and their descendants living in France? What languages do they speak? Where? When? And WHY?

A small anecdote so as to not bore you with my linguistic identity obsession:

While riding the metro I witnessed a rather loud disagreement take place in Arabic. Admittedly, it’s rather annoying in any circumstance to listen to people shout at each other in a confined space, but this peaked my interest the moment it became a attack on the two Arab men’s choice of language. From the other side of the train a man shouted aggressively,

“Ey oh, on est en France, ici on parle français!”

“Hey, we’re in France, here we speak French.”

This marks the stereotypical viewpoint of the French towards foreign languages in their country, especially towards immigrants from the developing countries of North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.

To be specific, I don’t claim to be a specialist on matters of European immigration. My interest is merely how people identify themselves by their language, and how we (and others) identity our social status within society based on our language. But as our world becomes increasingly more globalized, it is inevitable that we will hear Arabic in France, Wolof in Morocco, and Spanish in the USA… Our borders are porous, and as much as that might dismay some, it’s the future and we better get ready to embrace these cross-cultural/linguistic exchanges as opportunities for learning and growth.

Perhaps the publicity for the Paris Museum of Immigration says it best,

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Our ancestors were not all Gaulois.

We are who we are, and should be allowed to identify freely without fear or hesitation and with respect for all peoples and all languages.

*So much to catch up on! More to come very soon!

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3 thoughts on “Ici, on parle français

  1. Renee says:

    Great anecdotal meditation on nationalism, culture and linguistics. Your insights were fabulous. The Metro scene said so much. Well done. Renee

  2. Betsy Austin says:

    Lizzie: Great stuff, as always. I love the language piece, as what you write about has always fascinated me also. My favorite quote from a linguist prof. I heard speak is “A standard language is simply a dialect with an army and a navy”. TRUE! Just in the same way that I bristle when I hear Québecois French put down as not “Parisian French”, not “real French”….why Suzanne was given such a hard time in part while at SHS….burned my britches!!
    Regarding how you deal with how you feel you are perceived, if you are seriously speaking Arabic, even if not yet perfectly, you won’t be taken as mocking…
    Too bad things don’t seem to evolve in French society. All I have to do is look at the covers of my Paris Match to see the same old faces….
    Have you seen the movie “Le Grand Voyage”? It speaks to exactly your question about recent immigrants in France, language transition, and more! You’ll love it!! Moroccan family moves to Marseilles, son has to drive old Dad to Hadj from France in an old Peugeot….
    Coming to Vt. soon? xxoo Betsy

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