Interesting observation from a recent trip in Estonia where we caught up with my in-laws. To give you the lay of the land, when we are there, here are the languages at play: 

My husband’s grandparents are Estonian speakers and also speak Russian.

My in-laws are Estonian and German speakers. 

Apart from my husband’s uncle and father, most of the other family members and friends speak English.

My husband speaks fluently Estonian, German and English and adapts based on who is around. 

I am a French speaker and speak English, a rusty German and am a very beginner in Estonian.


When I end up being with my husband’s family and when the grandparents are around, my mother-in-law, very cognizant of my lack of understanding - will often speak to me in German so I can feel involved and part of the conversation. Very rare are the times when I feel somewhat disconnected of what is going on or talked about - at times, I can even feel a little embarrassed to be the center of attention as our hosts (my husband’s grandparents) are left out of the conversation because I happen to be around. 

In about a month, I am going to travel with my husband to France and let’s be honest: learning English in France is mandatory since the early 70’s and anyone who has gone to a secondary school (i.e. all my family members from my sisters down to my nephews) has learnt English at some point and yet, only one (out of 10) of them makes any kind of effort to communicate with my husband (who is indeed not particularly chatty but it does not prevent anyone to show interest). The interesting bit is that one of my sisters happen to be a German teacher so she could totally communicate with my husband but will simply not do it for reasons I can not really figure. 

When speaking about this major difference with my husband, he told me something that struck me: French people are not inclusive and generally do not make any efforts to adapt to foreigners, at home or even abroad. While most countries’ culture will switch to English if there is only one non-local speaker to make sure that person feels welcome and his/her opinion is valued, French speakers simply do not care and will carry on in French. Case in point: I used to hang out with a bunch of French speakers practicing theater (in French). They were all living in New York for a few years and all spoke English fluently.  When mu partner and I got married, we hosted a party on our rooftop the following summer to celebrate it with friends. That particular group of friends adapted a French song about myself and my husband… In French. While the song was referring to a boat (my husband likes sailing), they all knew he would not be able to understand it and neither would most people in the audience (as there were pretty much my only French-speaking friends). While the intention was absolutely lovely and I remember fondly of that song, it still fathoms me that it even happened (and to be fair, while all French speakers, those friends included people from Belgium - who I always view as having a different culture). 

I wonder at times whether French speakers are simply wired to consider the level of comfort of the majority over the few (or only one) while most other countries feel that the opinion of another person matters more than remaining in their comfort zone. Hmmm… 

Aurelie DesmasComment