Gained in Translation: Bilingual Fun and Games

The Language Barrier, and How to Make it Worse

February 4, 2015By David JaggardC'est Ironique!

You can pick your friends, and you can pick at your relatives, but sometimes it’s hard to pick your tongue.

One of the great things about learning a foreign language is that it gets you into all kinds of messes. Specifically, I’m thinking about the muddles, mix-ups and snafus that arise when two bilingual people aren’t sure which of the two languages they should be speaking.

I often find myself in these situations. And since I consider them to be a source of diversion and recreation, I have decided to classify them as games.

In this article, I will present the rules for the most widely played ones. Of course, they could involve any two languages in any country, but since I prefer to make everything about me, the following explanations are based on the premise of a bilingual Anglophone living in France:

1) Accent Chicken

Usually for two players, although any number can participate. All players must be Anglophones.

The rules:

The game begins when the contestants meet for the first time, not knowing anything about each other’s backgrounds. They start speaking in French because, hey, they’re in France.

After a few sentences back and forth, they recognize each other’s accents but keep speaking French. The first one to give in and switch to English loses. Or wins. I’m not sure which, but there’s usually a reluctance to do this.

The reluctance stems from the difficulty of playing the game. In Accent Chicken, the players are simultaneously maintaining both an audible verbal dialogue and a silent mental monologue that, for both of them, goes something like this:

“Hey — this guy’s not French… Sounds like an American… Or maybe Australian… Will I look like an idiot if I switch to English? … Will I look like an idiot if I don’t? … Whoa! Who does he think he’s kidding with that accent? … He must notice mine, so why doesn’t he switch to English? … Oh man, that’s not an accent, that’s an unknown dialect! … Call an anthropologist… Not sure how much longer I can take this… But what if he turns out to be Danish?”

Eventually, as in staredowns, presidential elections and bladder-holding contests, somebody has to give in. Otherwise it’s not Accent Chicken, it’s just Pig-Tonguedness.

Speaking of which…

2) Tongue Tug of War

For two players, one Francophone vs. one Anglophone. Both must be bilingual — one in reality, the other in his dreams.

The rules:

The Francophone, recognizing the Anglophone’s accent, switches to English. The Anglophone, recognizing that the Francophone’s English stinks like a Camembert’s armpit, sticks to French.

No one wins. But both players keep careful score, tallying up the other’s mistakes in their native tongue. Then, as in nuclear standoffs, presidential debates and air-guitar contests, both sides claim victory.

There is also a “solitaire” version of this game, which I witnessed once at a business meeting in Paris. One of the attendees was a guy from the United States who insisted, for some unfathomable reason, on speaking his halting, error-riddled, appallingly accented French throughout the session, even though he knew full well that the rest of us were all either British or American.

The fact that everyone else was speaking native English, when they weren’t rolling their eyes or glaring at him with ill-disguised exasperation, didn’t faze him a bit. He later left the project to take a job as Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sensitivity coach.

3) Deaf Man’s Bluff

For at least three players, divided into two teams.

The rules:

The members of Team A must be bilingual and must presume, wrongly, that the members of Team B are not. Team B (which can be just one person) always wins.

This game is really a lot of fun, provided you’re on Team B, and it also has the biggest pool of potential participants — in my case, I can play it with both Francophones who assume that I don’t speak French and, here in France, Anglophones who assume that I don’t speak English.

Like the elderly lady from the southern United States (judging from her accent) who saw me standing outside my building one night back when I lived in Montmartre. She looked at the long, steep flight of steps leading up the hill at the end of the street, and said to me, in a slow, reedy drawl, “Are yew a hillbilly?” And then said to the two teenage girls with her (I guess her granddaughters), “He can’t understand a word I say. He’s so… dense.”

Actually, I guess that match was sort of a draw, in the sense that I didn’t say anything to dispel her delusion (and mortify her granddaughters). Which reminds me of the all-time champion at Deaf Man’s Bluff: my friend Louis.

An American who grew up in Paris, Louis is perfectly bilingual. His title-winning triumph occurred one night when he was dining in a Manhattan restaurant with a mutual friend of ours and the conversation turned to the comparative merits of various recordings of classical piano concertos.

Both of these guys speak impeccable French and both of them know quite a lot about classical music, twin facts unbeknownst to the two Frenchmen sitting at the next table. One of whom saw fit at one point to lean over and say, “Excuse me, but are either of you pianists?”

When informed that neither of my friends had any formal keyboard training, he turned to his tablemate and said, in French, supposing that no one else could understand, “You see? They’re stupid American boors who don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Summoning up an admirable esprit de l’escalier before he had even seen the stairs, Louis then came up with the ideal retort, using one of his (and my) favorite phrases in French: “Ah, monsieur! Vous pétez plus haut que votre cul!”

For the benefit of readers who aren’t qualified to play, or referee, this game, the expression figuratively means, “You are being a pretentious, pompous ass.” Its literal meaning, however, is considerably more picturesque.

A pretentious, pompous ass might translate it as, “You somehow manage to release flatulence from a place higher than the terminal end of your digestive system.” In other words, your pretentious, pompous ass.

4) The games people don’t play

Alas, just as in the world of actual sports, some people are content to sit on the sidelines, not playing any games at all. I’ve met a few Americans who have lived in France for decades without ever learning the language. Despite what my former French teachers probably think, I am not one of them (as explained in a previous C’est Ironique).

I don’t understand those people. My feeling is that if you’re going to live in Paris, you should learn at least enough French to say “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Another glass of wine, please” and “Oh dear sir! You **** above your *******!”

The idea isn’t necessarily to become fluent — just not to be, well, so dense. Your grammar doesn’t have to be perfect. You can make mistakes. And you can still release flatulence from the usual place.


Reader Richard Ewan writes: “This article is very funny and entertaining. Having visited Paris many times but not become ‘fluent,’ I can see all sides to this language. My daughter has become fluent after five years of university and law school at the Sorbonne, and she loved this article as well.
“My family has had great experiences trying to speak French and English in mixed gatherings and always enjoyed the challenge and funny language butchering. Thank you for making my day.”

© 2015 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

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