The Face: I finally figured out why it’s so hard to learn French

I know a lot of multilingual people. One thing that mystifies many of them: it’s really hard to learn French as an adult. I know several polyglots who’ve given up entirely after years of trying.

In theory, French ought to be relatively easy-to-learn for speakers of other European languages. The U.S. State Department calls it a Category I language, meaning it’s related to English and therefore easier to learn than, say, Arabic or Chinese.

There are lots of hypotheses — but none are satisfactory. French has lots of vowel sounds that are hard for speakers of other languages to differentiate and to reproduce — but then, so does English. There are tons of homophones in French — yet, they also are plentiful in other languages.

But I know why French is so hard. It’s The Face.

The Face

When native Francophones — from anywhere in world — listen attentively, they contract all of their facial muscles and squint at the speaker. They make The Face.

My wife and I enjoy learning languages. When we landed in Montreal ten years ago, one thing that excited us was the chance to learn French.

Yet, almost from the beginning, speaking in French was a miserable, discouraging experience — people kept grimacing when we tried to speak with them.

We concluded that there really was only one possibility: we sucked at speaking French, to the point of causing real pain.

Then, one day, we were in Quebec City as tourists, and we came upon a large tour group from France. It was a noisy spot, and someone asked a question of the tour leader. The guide, who was having trouble hearing, scrunched up her face in that same pained expression. She finally understood the question and replied — as the tour group members all winced in apparent anguish while listening to her answer.

Observation № 1: The Face is how French-speaking people show that they are really listening.

Other things started to make sense. Francophones, for example, would sometimes stop in mid-sentence to ask me if I was following them or even listening at all.

Observation № 2: It’s actually impolite to not make The Face — at least every so often — while listening to someone.

Anglophones think that Francophones are impatient and rude, because they make The Face. At the same time, Francophones perceive English speakers to be bored (and boring) because we listen impassively.

What a classic example of nonverbal communication problems.

Conclusion: The situation makes it especially hard to learn French, since your interlocuteurs seem to be expressing disgust with your every utterance.

When I point this out to people who’ve tried to learn French, it comes as an epiphany. “Really? Do they do that when they talk to each other?” French speakers are somewhat aware of The Face, but they do it instinctively and — in particular — they don’t realize that other cultures don’t use it (except to express actual disgust).

Now, just for fun, every once in a while I make The Face on purpose, wondering if the speaker will notice.

It actually seems to relax them.