Groupe de conversation Française

Last night I joined a French conversation group which meets regularly in a local pub. I heard about it at a party in January and have been intending to join since then. Last night I finally tracked them down.

All members of the group are English and/or Welsh and can speak French well, or at least can understand it even if they don’t speak it fluently. The group has been going for about eight years and is run by a teacher of English as a foreign language from Bangor University. The rule is that only French is spoken for first two hours, and we stuck to this last night. After that English is allowed, though last night we continued to speak mainly in French.

It was fun, interesting, we discussed all sorts of topics, and I found that I can still speak and understand French reasonably well even though I’ve used it very little during the past 20 years. Welsh, which is currently my dominant foreign language, kept on trying to impose itself on my French, but I managed to keep it in check most of the time. If I’d spoken the mixture of French and Welsh that was brewing in my head the Welsh-speaking members of the group would have probably understood.

One thing we talked about was how it can be difficult to understand mispronounced words, especially in unfamiliar contexts. The leader of the group told us about a student of hers who was talking about a visit to the “islands”, or at least that’s what it sounded like. The leader kept on asking “Which islands?”, but the student kept on saying “the islands”. Eventually she worked out that the student was talking about the Highlands (of Scotland). The mispronunciation may be only slight, but it’s enough to disrupt comprehension, and this can happen not just with foreign languages, but also with different dialects and accents of your native language.

When I meet people with names I’ve never heard before, sometimes I find it hard to take in their names until I’ve seen them written down.

This entry was posted in French, Language, Language learning.

13 Responses to Groupe de conversation Française

  1. Jim Morrison says:

    I too am coming back to French after nearly twenty years. I started a job in Paris 3 weeks ago so I will hopefully be pretty good in a year or so.
    When I first got here I found that I hadn’t lost too much of my French after all those years but I had/have the same problem as you. Catalan is my most dominant foreign language at the moment and it keeps creeping in all the time, although less and less as time goes on. I suppose Catalan would in general creep into French more than Welsh would as Catalan is similar to French and Welsh is not.

  2. dav.e says:

    Félicitations et bon courage à vous deux! I found it interesting that when I was learning German, Spanish would creep into my head. I would have assumed English would have given their Germanic connection.

    Jim, com és que parles català?

  3. formiko says:

    I’ve had that experience with a friend of mine from Spain. I speak Spanish, but he insisted on speaking English with me during this particular time. He said the sentence
    “I saw a lot of yuppies downtown”, but he kept saying “juppies”. Now, speaking Spanish, I understand that Spaniards mispronounce Y, but I had NO idea what he was saying. He kept saying “juppies, juppies con i griega” (with a y). That confused me even more! What are juppies with a y? I was completely lost (and I’m a native English speaker!) Then he spelled it. I finally got it. By that point though, we both forgot why he brought it up to begin with. 🙂

  4. Peter J. Franke says:

    In reaction of Simon’s remark about taking in names until written (last sentence: Eyes are the dominant senses of humans, that’s why many of us need to see (or read) something to understand it. For instance: Dutch speakers are able to understand Swedish, Danish and Norwegian texts, but it is hard for us to grasp these languages without subtitles. My daughter is learning English, but her pronounciation is not always right (due to the non-phonetic way of writing). She asks me the meaning of many words, but frequently she needs to write it down before I know what it is.

  5. Jim Morrison says:

    dav.e, perque la meva novia es Catalana, i tu?

  6. DA says:

    Simon, your comment on highlands/islands reminds me of a Welsh/English mispronunciation which I find amusing. There is a street near me called Bryn Heulog, but due to the local decline of the Welsh language over the years, some of the people who live there pronounce it Bryn Niwlog, so not only has the pronunciation changed, but the weather has as well. For non-Welsh speakers – heulog = sunny and niwlog = foggy.

  7. Tommy says:

    Re: the Spanish “yuppies”/”juppies” example, it is very common for Spanish speakers to turn English “y” sounds into “j” sounds. Another common example is New York, which I have heard “Nuevo York” as well as “New Jork”.

    Confusion in multilingual contexts happens to me all the time in Japan, when a Japanese person abruptly (with no context) tries to say something in English to me but it “sounds” like Japanese because 1) the pronunciation is unclear, untrained, etc, and 2) my brain is expecting to hear Japanese from a Japanese person in Japan.

  8. Julia says:

    From my experience it is usually another “foreign” language that interferes with the foreign language you’re trying to learn. I don’t think it matters if the languages are similar or not. Your native language is in a separate category from all “foreign” languages.

  9. Tommy says:

    Julia –

    Nice comment. I would have to disagree to some extent, however, that there are two broad categories of “native language” and “foreign language”.

    One theoretical argument is the idea of Universal Grammar which scholars like Noam Chomsky favor. It is just a theory, though, that there is a sort of human language which all human species learn to speak, and this language is simply a mathematical system of highly organized and predictable rules. Chomsky says that if Martians were to look at English, Spanish, Chinese, whatever, they would easily see a pattern of all human language which humans themselves do not really see. Just a theory.

    From a practical point of view, I find foreign languages creeping and interfering with my native language, mostly with reaction sounds. And to be sure, it doesn’t happen when I carefully consider my lexicon – it happens with those instantaneous “conversation fillers” when my mind just reacts instinctually rather than plans. A lot of recent neuroscience has explained similar ideas, as well.

    A funny example I saw on Japanese TV recently was when an American/Japanese singer named Jero (he grew up in the US and his first/native language is English, but is fluent in Japanese) was asked to speak in English during a certain interview. Even though he was speaking his native language, his “reactions” to the Japanese interviewer’s statements was very Japanese. This is hard to explain, but Japanese people tend to do this “ehhhh….!” thing whenever they are impressed or shocked or suprised, etc. In English, no one does this. Instead people say something like “wow!” or something.

    I have done this with “ehhh” among English-speakers, or rather I felt it awkward NOT saying “ehhh”. I think we are all simply products of our surroundings, where the broad terms “native” and “foreign” languages lose their meaning.

  10. Simon says:

    Tommy – I know what you mean about the fillers. I use the Cantonese 哎呀 (aai1 aa3) as an exclamation quite often when speaking foreign languages, though not so much when speaking English.

  11. Tommy says:

    Simon – do you use that Cantonese exclamation on purpose or by accident? Another example in Japanese which you may know is “ma” or “maaa…ne” when you hesitate before answering a question or giving an explanation. This is has slipped out when I try to “buy time” speaking languages other than English. It doesn’t happen on purpose, but it is a useful sound (I’m not sure if there is such a standarized equivalent in English?)

  12. jdotjdot89 says:


    I find I have the same issue as you–though with even more different languages. I’m in Catalunya learning Catalan now, but surprisingly it’s not my Spanish that creeps in and confuses me, but rather my Hebrew. Among my foreign languages, it’s a weird circle of confusion:

    Hebrew creeps into Catalan
    Spanish creeps into Hebrew
    French creeps into Spanish
    Catalan creeps into French

    I learned these in the following order: Hebrew, Spanish, French, Catalan, which seems to have something to do with it. Each language is only affected by the one mentioned above.

    Has anyone else ever had this happen to them?

  13. Simon says:

    Tommy – that exclamation just slips out naturally.

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