Every time I am in France, it strikes me how bad the knowledge of French is amongst Dutchmen. The time that we could be proud of our knowledge of languages is definitely gone. My generation probably is the last to have learned French in highschool—mind you, for three years, every one of us! I sometimes read a book in that language, which I suppose is even more rare.

Well, it’s not much of a problem in these days of MTV and Internet, but sometimes it can be useful—when you’re on holiday, and you want to do more than just buy a loaf of bread (un pain). So, a few tips.

Of course, the beginning of it all is a reasonable vocabulary. A helpful test is trying to read a newspaper. But as important is presentation. The French speak with their mouths, with their faces, their eyes, their hands. If you want to come along, you should do the same. Apart from that, half of what a Frenchman says gets swallowed. This may cause some problems when trying to understand someone, but it comes in handy when you don’t remember the right suffixes for that particular verb. Just start off with the right noise, then chop it off as soon as you don’t know the rest.

Now the three most important words in French conversation are alors, hein, and bôfff. The word alors is the right introduction to any sentence that you don’t know yet how to end; it’s signals that what is to follow is indeed very important. The word hein should be pronounced like English ‘huh’, but with a strong nasal sound. This word can be inserted at any place in any sentence.

The word bôfff, which does not appear in any dictionary, can be made by loosely keeping the lips together, blowing up the cheeks a little, then making a virtually voiceles ‘o’ sound while the air escapes the mouth. While making this sound, one avoids the opposing party, but instead examines the roof, the nails of the left hand, or the exit. Practice is unavoidable to obtain a maximum result.

So the expression to save a sinking conversation is: Alors hein, bôfff… Which says as much as: you tell me, I know all about it (now it’s your turn).


This text was previously published in the By The Way…, volume 59.

© Roelof Ruules