When I first arrived in France I was naturally surprised for the first couple of days to see that all of the street signs, advertisements and shop names were in French. It’s not that I expected them to be otherwise. I didn’t expect anything at all. And in the absence of expectations, we rely on what we are accustomed to: in this case, reading English everywhere. Soon, however, I was surprised to see that there were indeed English words scattered throughout the city in ways that were clearly not intended for the aid of foreigners. I’m in France, aren’t I? What are those English words doing on that poster? Do the French even understand them? And why is “Call Me Maybe” playing on the radio?
Of course, dear old England isn’t really too far north, and many French have studied English at school, but it also appears that English plays a noteworthy role in French popular culture. Most “cool” music and popular movies here in France come from the U.S., and my host mother explained to me that French teenagers sing the lyrics to American pop songs without having any idea what they’re saying. Of course, movies receive voiceovers and new titles, and the songs contained therein are translated. However, sometimes the “French” title is simply a different set of English words. “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” for example, became “Journal Intime d’une Future Star.”
Last Saturday night, I had the opportunity to visit a French McDonald’s with a group of about 15 French students. I kid you not, on the menu along with “le Big Mac” and “le McFish” you can find “le McBaguette.” It’s a snack-sized sandwich: a mini hamburger patty with melted emmental cheese, béarnaise sauce and a leaf of lettuce between two slices of baguette-style bread, almost like the French version of a slider. For my own part, I decided to order a McChicken, which was more American, but also more challenging. The trouble with this order was that I only knew how to pronounce “McChicken” the way I would in the U.S. It is not, after all, a French word, but at a French McDonald’s, they won’t understand an order for “McChicken” unless you pronounce it with the absurd French accent that allows it to be part of the Francophone vocabulary. I enlisted one of my new friends for help.
“Comment est-ce qu’on dit ‘McChicken’?”
“Mac-shee-kon,” he replied, amused by the lesson. Then continuing in French: “In English, you have the ‘ch’ sound. We don’t say ‘ch’ in French. It’s ‘sh’: mac-shhheeee-kon.”
“Micsheekon?” I tried.
“Mac-shee-kon,” he corrected.
I did eventually order a “mac-shee-kon,” but even then required a little help from another French-speaker in order to understand and be understood in the noisy restaurant. In some ways, the sprinkling of English words in my French world is more challenging than if they were all French. They throw off a stretch of thoughts in French and, though being words I know, are never pronounced “correctly.” Meanwhile, however, they are rather amusing. I guess, for the sake of easing my adjustment to this country, it’s a good thing I’m not a gum chewer. I’m not sure I’m skilled enough in Frenchified English to ask a shop owner if he has any “shoo-een gohm.”