Being a French postdoc abroad; the language barrier

MrRudeBy Guillaume Péron, Bénédicte Madon, Sabrina Servanty, Lucile Marescot and Sarah Cubaynes.

Some of you may have noticed, lots of French postdocs are in labs around the world. For us it’s more and more a pre-requisite in order to get academic positions (meaning recruitment starts at a good 10 years post high school in the best case scenario, but more on this later).

We thought it would be amusing to write a few posts about this life that we are leading or have led; based on our experience this will involve only anglo-saxon countries (US, Australia, UK). OK, so it’s going to be mostly mishaps, criticisms, and complaints, but we hope those posts will be at least some times funny. Maybe they can be of use to either graduates entering the postdoc life (and comparing it to full time unemployment), or to PIs considering hiring one of those funny-speaking people.

The language barrier

So let’s start with the obvious; English is an acquired taste for us. Although we are confident saying that in most cases, our working English is largely good enough, we also readily acknowledge that there is a difference between working English and fluent English! Social life can be a whole lot different when small talk is an effort and requires 100% of your brain power! The first couple of months are exhausting and it takes time usually to realize that it’s mainly due to the language. If you end up doing a postdoc in an area where there aren’t that many foreigners, people might even think you do not speak English. Having a phone conversation is usually the worst. It can be quite a challenge if you’re going to have a lot of conference calls during your postdoc, especially when it’s involving a big group. And some days, it can be very frustrating and make you feel less capable at your job than native speakers.

We are often asked for examples of funny misunderstandings. Those do happen, so here are a few that we remember right off the bat. Repeating the same word trying different pronunciations hoping to be eventually understood (Dee-sai-FER? Deh-SSAI-fer? Come one, DEE-ssi-feur?)… Ending up writing down this damn word on a piece of paper (decipher everyone). Asking someone to spell a word (e.g. a street name) just to get lost after the 3 first letters, too ashamed to ask again, ending up trying to match up with whatever info we already had. And let’s end with a funny anecdote. You can read the dialogue with a French accent in your mind for added fun. One of us had been in the US for a week, and was looking around for rental apartments. She got lost after the first place she visited. So, she asked a guy in the street.

“Hi, excuse me, I’m lost. Do you know where is the New-York metro station please?”

“Sure, go straight, pass the bridge and when you see five guys, turn left.”

“OK, thanks a lot! Have a good one.” Thinking at the same time, “Well I’m not sure I get it right. How the hell does he know that there is going to be 5 guys after the bridge ?!!!!”

But anyway, straight she went, passed the bridge and planned to ask the next passerby for more info. 5 Guys turned out to be a fast food chain 🙂

After several months or even years, you’re thinking that your English is better, which is true in a sense (especially after some beers at the pub), until you’re making a phone call or meeting someone for the first time and this person is struggling to understand what you’re saying. You then realize that actually people with whom you have been interacting every day are just used to your accent and your way of speaking. Or they just grew tired and act as if they understand you. But don’t put too much pressure on you because if you witness a conversation between an Australian and an American, you will realize that they’re also struggling to understand each other. #WhereIzDeNirestBakeryPlize