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When It Comes to Language, French Have the Right Moves

August 06, 1987|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

The French have a gesture as well as a word for it, according to Alverno High School teacher Linda Reffner.

Reffner, who teaches French at the Roman Catholic school for girls in Sierra Madre, insists that her students learn body French as well as the conventional kind.

This summer Reffner spent three weeks in Paris, Nantes and other French cities studying French teen-agers as they communicated with fluttering hands and eloquent eyebrows as well as words.

She found that French teens speak a body language quite different both from that of American teen-agers and from the body French she learned almost a decade ago as a graduate student.

When French teens are thrilled, they say super. They also thrust out an upturned thumb. Dozens of such standardized gestures punctuate the talk of French adolescents, Reffner found.

As Reffner explained, acquiring a vocabulary of appropriate gestures is as much part of learning French as acquiring a vocabulary of words. "You would be noticeably foreign unless you mastered this, no matter how fluent you are or how good your accent is," she said.

Reffner, 37, mastered the basic physical lexicon as a graduate student in French at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. But her students at Alverno told her they suspected that such once-popular gestures as brushing an open hand across the chest to express approval or dismay while saying ooh la la had become passe.

Reffner could find no up-to-date book or authoritative article on the subject.

So she applied for--and won--a $4,500 fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to travel through France this summer documenting the gestures of today's French teens. She interviewed and photographed dozens of adolescents, some in their classrooms, others as they smoked, flirted and gesticulated on church steps and other places where French teens gather. (Reffner was one of 100 high school language teachers nationwide to receive Rockefeller grants for summer projects.)

For the most part, Reffner said, her students were absolutely right--body French has changed.

The ooh la la gesture has all but disappeared. None of the teens was observed or reported using it. Reffner said she heard the phrase repeatedly while watching the 1987 Wimbledon tennis tournament on French TV. But the only time she saw it was on a train, when a middle-aged woman became exasperated with a spirited toddler sharing their second-class compartment.

Also extinct among the young was le rasoir (the razor), Reffner said. Adults continue to express boredom by brushing a knuckle across the chin as if shaving. "Kids recognized it, but they tended to roll their eyes instead, which is also common here," she said.

Reffner said the French repertoire is much larger than that of her American students.

Among the telling grimaces and flourishes she found in the lexicon of French teens:

Crossing one index finger over the other to indicate one-half. Alternatively, chopping at a wrist.

Winking conspiratorially.

Making a circle with the index finger and thumb (like the American gesture for OK ), then rubbing the fingertips together, to signify nothing.

Waving the hands as if they were signal flags, palms out, to communicate "No way."

Expelling a breath between closed lips when frustrated--for instance, when not knowing the answer to a question. The French call this le souffle , the puff.

French and U. S. students even give different signals to show they can answer a question in class. Americans raise their hands. The French raise an index finger.

French teens also count on their hands differently than most Americans.

"They start with the thumb," Reffner explained, "and they thought we were rather stupid for starting with a finger, usually the index finger, that is not the first." French teens can keep the little finger pressed tight against the palm until it is extended to represent the number 5, a tough maneuver for most Americans.

"It's almost as if they've developed a different muscle," Reffner said.

The French teens told Reffner that some gestures are never used around adults. They wouldn't say--or show--what they are.

Reffner is writing an article on her discoveries for the Annals of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. She is also developing a series of classroom posters to illustrate common French gestures.

Reffner said the teens she talked to and observed did very little swearing, either verbally or nonverbally. She did not see a single adolescent pull the back of his or her hand forward from under the chin in the gesture that politely translates as "Kiss off." Nor did she see an adolescent make le bras d'honneur. Indeed, the only time she saw a citizen salute another with the rude "arm of honor," the communicator was an angry little boy in a Parisian park.

The gesture Reffner saw everywhere was the kiss.

She had been told that she would see Parisians greeting each other with four kisses, people in the south of France with three kisses, people in the eastern and western departments with two . "Every place I went, that held true," she said.

Among French teens, the custom is for a girl to greet each of her friends with a kiss. A boy kisses the girls and shakes hands with the boys. "I thought the kiss would be a little cheek-brusher," Reffner said. "But it's not. It's a real smacker that you can hear."

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