By Belle David
Welcome to France, where knowing English alone guarantees you a life lost in translation. You’re probably thinking, “I’m an expat, not an immigrant. I’ve managed with just English in other countries before.” Whether you’re a privileged person due to your origin, a highly qualified worker, someone seeking better opportunities, forced by your situation to be here, on a temporary project or here for good … in France, the linguistic demand is the same.
I’ve been an official interpreter for different state services (administrative, legal, social, medical) for eight years now. I also freelance for private companies and individuals. My work has allowed me to work with people from all continents with various ethnic origins, socio-economic backgrounds, and reasons for being in the territory. One thing they have in common is the need to understand and be understood in this country.
I was once asked why there aren’t enough English signs in big cities or why I couldn’t just conduct the civic instruction class in English instead of them having to sit through a French immigration seminar while I translate it to English, especially since our group was 95% Anglophone. Because that’s France. It doesn’t miss a chance to remind you where you are and that it has this official language that is favoured over other languages. Since the 16th century, the use of French language is mandated and they even created the Académie Française to ensure its correct use and to protect French from the threat of Anglicisation. They also set music quotas so that radio stations are play a certain percentage of songs in French – to keep the language alive on air.
Anyone who wants to stay here longer than a vacation would soon be hit by reality from the moment they have to deal with the dreaded prefecture interviews, the infamous obsession of the French with paperwork, the mandatory integration appointments and training, the signing of contracts, buying food, finding lodging, working, etc.
Indeed, the linguistic barrier is a big challenge regardless of one’s intentions to be here. The less French you know, the more difficult it is to make local friends, to understand the culture, to figure out the bureaucracy, and more importantly to know and exercise your rights. Most people recognise the importance of learning the language but only a fraction of those take the steps to really learn it, mostly due to financial and time constraints. Others also feel that as adults, they’re too old to learn a new language. So without the French proficiency, how does one try to survive here?
Some depend on their entourage to explain things. I have met a lot of parents who rely on their French-educated children to translate for them. Others have no choice but to limit their social circle and options, constantly looking for nearby English-speaking this and that. Some are in denial of the necessity, expecting a positive response each time they ask, “Do you speak English?” and they get upset when people say, “No” – easier to be annoyed at someone else’s inadequacy than their own. And the rich just pay people to do things for them. More than once, I was privately hired for the simplest tasks like filling out a basic French form which could have been easily done if they bothered to exert the minimum effort of using Google. But not everyone can afford the luxury of paying for interpreters and even if they all could, I’ve observed that my affluent clients were not spared from the frustration of not being able to easily communicate.
In fairness, the state has been providing free basic French classes to non EEA nationals with legal documents for the past 10 years under the Republican Integration Contract (formerly known as Reception and Integration Contract), to make the newcomers’ integration easier. But that can only go as far as being able to survive mundane daily life. What about when you get sick? When you get in trouble with the police? When someone violates your rights? When you want to complain? When you want to negotiate a contract? When you’re facing a legal battle with a francophone? You’re at a disadvantage from the very beginning.
I regularly provide linguistic support for situations where it’s difficult enough to be involved in one without having to struggle with literally understanding what’s being said and what’s needed to be said.
Some are dealing with health problems, some are facing legal repercussions or consequences of not being aware of the law, some are fighting injustice, some are victims of employer abuse, discrimination, violence, petty and serious crimes, some are going through separation, death, and other family issues.
Being an immigrant myself, my understanding of their plight goes beyond the language that we share – it is also the experience that we share. It takes a lot of strength and courage to go through difficult phases in your life when you have no family around, when you’re away from home and your usual support group, when you’ve given a lot just to be here, especially when the option to pack your bags and leave France is a complicated one.
“What’s really going on?” “What will happen to me?” “Help!” I see these messages in their eyes. They expect me to put on a social assistant or lawyer’s hat, especially during investigations or court appearances, which is beyond my job description and against work ethics. But sometimes I do end up playing the part when people ask me for advice outside of my actual job. I wish I could have done more for them. I wish they were proficient enough in French to stand up for themselves. Things would be simpler. Of course, their life would be much easier if they didn’t have to face those problems at all.
However, you never know what life has in store for you. Maybe you visualised a seemingly perfect and easy-going life when you decided to live here. But sometimes things don’t go as planned and are beyond your control. The most you can do is be equipped with the minimum tools in case things go south.
That is why I cannot stress enough that even if you’re not aiming for citizenship or a lifetime residency, language proficiency is very important. It will save you from a lot of disconcertion and trouble. Also, when you no longer need to rely on others to express what you want to say, you’ll feel a sense of empowerment. It opens new doors and maybe you’ll even start to think or dream in French, which some consider as quite an indication of finally feeling at home away from home. Do not be settled with the idea that the best version of your life here is something as confusing as watching a foreign movie without subtitles.