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Language Is Not The Only Key To Integration

France - Language Is Not The Only Key To Integration

Wendy Mewes looks at finding out about France

Many people simply find learning French or other foreign languages too difficult. While they are keen to pick up a few words of greeting and purchasing, there is no reasonable expectation of going beyond that. This could be through age, lack of language experience or just a poor head for foreign sounds. But language is not the only form of integration.

Most expats know their own areas well enough at a certain level. They visit the sights on arrival and repeat the best regularly with visitors. For holidays they may visit other parts of the same country they’re living in, often to experience a different landscape or environment: from country to coast, or vice versa.

But the key to living easily in your own chosen resting place is to understand that place as well as you can. And I don’t mean knowing the best/cheapest restaurants or even picking up and endlessly regurgitating the local legend. Legends spring from history, landscape and human endeavour. The stories may be larger than life but at another level, it is real life they reflect.

As anyone who has read the excellent Discovery of France by Graham Robb knows, France as a united country has a short history and every region is still anchored in its own individual roots. Getting to grips with the unique character of your area will give you a much greater sense of belonging and an appreciation of what matters to the people who live there and why.

Take most basic level: geology determines the landscape, and the landscape determines what can be grown, eaten, exported, built and defended in any area. Find out about local stone/soil and get hold of examples or know where to go to see them. By such a simple step you can get to grips with the essence of a region. Brittany, for example, is said to be a ‘land of granite’, but if you look at a geological map, you easily see the degree of exaggeration involved in that stereotype.

Where I live in Finistere in western Brittany many people know that medieval wealth was often linked with the linen trade with England. They also know that crêpes are traditionally made from blé noir or sarrasin. But what about recognising that cereal crop or flax growing in the fields today? It can be fun to find out.

To understand the history of a region is harder, first because it is often very complex and secondly because there is a great deal of easily accessible disinformation, especially on the internet. Here in Brittany, the Breton language and the issue of independence from France still fuel conflict among the native population.

Many British residents have no idea that Breton was not spoken all over the region historically, that the development of east and west has been very different and that the ubiquitous black and white Breton flag was a creation of right-wing nationalism in the 1920s. Breton friends marvel at the number of these flag stickers on British cars.

People talk of all things Celtic without actually knowing what it means, nor realising that interest in such forms of identity really began in the late 19th century, when many still thought the megaliths were Druid temples. The ubiquitous triskell (three legged image) is not historically a Breton symbol at all, but it has been adopted in a 20th century revival of Celticism designed to assert a regional identity distinct from that of France.

These examples are just to show that things are not straightforward, and what your French neighbour tells you may be vigorously contradicted by another local just down the road. Finding out is not always about answers but awareness. For example, there were four main area-based Breton dialects. These have been artificially ‘put together’ in the last 70 years to give a standard written form. Native speakers continue to speak the particular language of their childhood. The potential for arguments and conflicts when speaking about Breton is clear just from those simple facts.

So, how to find out reliable information and increase awareness of your area? Go on a guided tour by a qualified guide. In the summer English language versions are common everywhere. But if you are interested in nature, don’t be afraid to go on a dawn walk to see deer even if it is a French outing. You’ll still learn where to go and what to look out for, even if you don’t understand every word. I work with many French guides and most will be willing to give simple explanations for foreigners in their party even if the rest are French.

Locals appreciate anyone who wants to understand their area. Visit the tourist office and ask for historical information. This sort of thing is not usually out on display but available when requested. You may have to pay a few euros, which apparently visitors often don’t want to do – but isn’t it worth it? Go to websites of local associations who research all manner of topics of interest. You may not understand all the words, but there’s often plenty of visual material to give a basic perspective.

Get hold of books in English about your area. I’ve written a whole series of books about Brittany, aimed at increasing awareness of history and landscape. I also run day study courses on specific topics - for example, for the world famous Parish Closes in western Brittany, we have a day of theory, looking at the context, purpose and architecture through maps, photos and documents, and then a day going around visiting the actual churches. This helps British residents take their visitors on much more meaningful tours in the future. Even a little basic reliable knowledge can enhance your perspective.

Something like this – designed to be fun and practical - may be on offer in your area. If history bores you and French language classes are beyond you, no problem - explore one of your interests. Join a photography club, go to keep-fit classes, become a member of bird-watching association. Forget the language barrier, just go along with a passion for something and a smile – those are the true keys to integration.

© Wendy Mewes 2011

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