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How To Fake A Language In A Foreign Place

I moved from Toronto to Montreal nearly five years ago. Montreal is in Quebec, whose language is French – some of you northern Americans may know it as “Europe of the North” because you come here over the holidays to exploit the far lower drinking age, act belligerent, and generally perpetuate negative American stereotypes. Nonetheless, while Montreal isn’t super French, it’s still French. And in my four-and-some years here, I’ve learned nearly nothing. Why? Because it’s easier to fake it than to make it. So if you’re ever abroad and don’t want to look like a tourist, hanging out with your ultra-Italian girlfriend’s family, or visiting la belle provence, here are a few tips on blending in from a seasoned veteran.

Laugh a lot. You know how when you’re at a loud bar, and a friend makes a comment that you can’t quite hear, and so as opposed to hopelessly replying, “what?”, you simply laugh and hope what they said was a joke? This is more or less the exact same process. Of course, this response is only appropriate in certain contexts, so you need to be smart about it. Stuck in a grocery store lineup that hasn’t moved in ten minutes? That person ahead of you probably just made some sort of witty complaint, and a laugh is likely an appropriate response. Busting a gut and awkwardly walking away, however, may not be the best way to handle being approached by a frantic and teary-eyed eight-year-old in the streets at two in the morning. Though in Quebec, you never know when those fucking Just For Laughs Gags pricks are about to strike.

Learn to pronounce a few words really well. Here’s the deal: in most of Europe, most of Quebec, and most everywhere, lots of people speak English – especially in the service industry. However, in certain places (especially Quebec) it’s more of a political thing. That means that there’s some bullshit logic that if they don’t think you speak their language, they’ll speak it to you, but if they think you speak their language, then they have less of an issue speaking in English. The key here is to fake the knowledge of their language enough to make it seem that you’re just so damn fluent that you naturally go back and forth between languages – we call that Frenglish here. Here’s an example:

Server: Are you ready to order?
You: Oui, merci. I’ll have a hamburger avec fromage, s’il vous plait.

That looks far less convincing on paper. And it’s probably not much more convincing in real life. Oh well, bonus marks for effort!

Be an asshole. Or rather, simply look and act like one, if that’s somehow different. What this accomplishes is two things: people in public are less likely to talk to you, and if they do talk to you, they’ll be less shocked when you outright ignore them and walk away. And really, wouldn’t you rather look like an insensitive piece of shit who ignores a poor old French woman asking you to help her walk her groceries to the car than own up to the fact that you don’t understand the words coming out of her wrinkled old mouth? I know I would. Pro-tip: wear headphones. If you don’t already look like enough of a sneering douche to ward off friendly chatter, blaring loud death metal generally does the trick. And if someone does muster up the courage to tap you on the shoulder, roll your eyes dramatically, and say something in faux-German. That’ll learn them for talking to the likes of you.

Pretend your native language is something other than English. Let’s say you’re in a nice little boulangerie in Paris. Instead of simply requesting a croissant in the typical incapable and apathetic way that Americans seem to do – it’s not pretentious to just try to say “kwah-sohn” – put on the accent of a language that likely nobody around will know how to speak. In doing so, instead of looking like a shitty dumb Anglophone, you look like some Russian dignitary that is simply employing the universality of the English language to bridge the back between your two distinct cultures. It’s also fun to try and say croissant in a Russian accent. Try it, it’s impossible.

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