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Man cannot live by bread alone - unless he's French!

July 2017

As a linguist and language teacher, I often refer to this quote when trying to motivate students to learn another language.  It can make for an interesting debate too, as in many ways it's a chicken and egg scenario.  What really does come first?  The language, or the thoughts, or is it a bit of both? Clearly language will always be created to meet  a need and will develop according to the interests and characteristics of its users, but this in turn produces a wealth of vocabulary and phrases for subsequent generations,  which will no doubt mould and influence their thoughts.  Sometimes French just has that certain "je ne sais quoi", which cannot be translated into English.  Allow me to illustrate this by means of a little anecdote. 

Years ago, when we had two small daughters, we were fortunate enough to have a holiday flat in Dinard, Brittany – a fascinating seaside town with a curious mix of both “The English” and “The French” (or should I say “The Parisians”). It used to be the holiday destination of choice for the wealthy of both nations, and is still home to many.  As well as exhibiting some wonderful architecture as a result, it also retains a certain rarefied atmosphere.   When we first bought our flat, the upstairs apartment was inhabited by the charming Odile who delighted in giving us advice for where to go and what to do in the area.  Sadly, she was forced to sell a short while later, and the new occupants, a Parisian "Madame" and her grown-up daughter, were somewhat more aloof. It was therefore with surprise that we found ourselves being formally invited to “apéritifs” in their apartment one summer's evening.  We were of course flattered to be asked, and didn’t wish to offend, so politely accepted. However, as it was clearly going to be a somewhat stiff  adult affair, it was with some trepidation that we walked up the steps to their apartment a few hours later, having armed our two youngsters with enough colouring books and pens to keep them going (as well as  more than a few "guidelines" on how to behave).

Soon, drink in hand, and one eye on the girls, we were ready to make whatever small talk came our way. However, that proved rather difficult in that, as you will see, there wasn’t much we could contribute. For about half an hour our host and her various guests discussed the pros and cons of each and every boulangerie in Dinard, comparing with ones they knew back in Paris – in some the dough wasn’t quite right, in others the crust was too soggy, in others the taste was simply lacking in some essential ingredient or other. I was just musing over the wisdom of admitting to happily buying baguettes from the supermarket because it was nearer (and dare I say cheaper?) when my host, clearly wishing to include us in the conversation, turned and said “Do tell me. You must have similar types of conversation about bread back in England?”. And as I thought of the rows and rows of sliced white bread sitting on those supermarket shelves, I can honestly say I couldn’t think of a single response.

As a bit of a codicil, I'd like to include here a link to a Europe 1 radio report about life on the island of St Martin after hurricane Irma hit in September 2017, where the only sign of life is one boulangerie, which, courtesy of its generator, continues to be the lifeblood of the community.  As one member of the public said "Le pain, c'est la vie".  This illustrates perfectly the point I've made in this blog post.

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