WILDWOOD — A common American mistake is to mix-up the French word cheveux, which means hair, with chevaux, which means horse.
For the local hotel industry, that could mean asking a French Canadian tourist if they need a horse drier instead of a hair drier in their room.
The good news is bad French is better than no French at all when it comes to visitors from Canada. The same might not be said of visitors from France, who want the language spoken perfectly or not at all.
“Hair and horse is about the same word. Don’t worry. They’ll laugh. They’ll love that you’re using some French,” said Katie Hetu, a French Canadian who married an American and now lives in Mays Landing.
Hetu is an instructor for a new class that teaches people involved in the Cape May County tourist industry how to treat French-speaking Canadians. The first class, held Friday at the Wildwoods Convention Center, drew a mix of hotel, motel, campground, bed & breakfast and restaurant workers.
The Cape May County Department of Tourism is making a push to attract French Canadians with an ad campaign in the Quebec market. The free course, hosted by the department and Atlantic Cape Community College, is to ensure they feel welcome.
Hetu and Karen Breen-Davis, a French teacher at Atlantic Cape and at Rowan University, taught the participants some basic conversational French. It began with single words, such as bonjour (hello), au revoir (goodbye) and s’il te plait (please).
This led to sentences. “Oui, Je parle Francais,” or “Yes, I speak French.” And questions such as “Comment t’appelles-tu?” The conversational opening means: “What’s your name?”
Before long members the group of about 20 people were speaking to each other, kind of. It wasn’t perfect. Sometimes they forgot when to pronounce and not to pronounce an R. Bonjour you pronounce the R, but bonsoir (good evening) you don’t.
There can also be some grammatical differences such as the use of verbs and subjects. French may turn the sentiment “I love you” into “I you love.” Dates can also be confusing.
“The day of the week comes first and then the month,” said Breen-Davis.
The conversational French is something that will take some practice, but most took home the lesson that these visitors will appreciate any attempt to communicate in their native tongue.
Hetu said the French Canadians who don’t want to hear or learn English will not vacation here anyway.
“The middle class is what you’ll get. They know a little English and they’re willing to learn. They’ll love that you’ll use some French,” Hetu said.
The course is also about the culture. The Canadians have a reputation for low tips, but that could be because their dining culture expects great service that they don’t always get here. Hetu said they don’t mind waiting for a table but once they sit down they don’t want to be rushed. They expect a waiter to know the wine list inside and out.
“Customer service is huge. Not being rushed is huge. They love to sit, eat, talk and drink their wine,” said Hetu.
She also instructed the participants that many Canadians have different political outlooks than Americans. She said most lean toward a socialist outlook, do not like capitalism and are shocked by poverty they see in America.
“You can talk about politics with French Canadians. They love to talk and are very open,” said Hetu.
Most left the class excited about using what they learned.
“We have many French Canadian guests and I’m always trying to learn how to speak with them better. I know this is going to make the whole summer,” said Judy Mazzotta, the front desk manager at the Lotus Inn in Wildwood Crest.
Mazzotta said she knew different words, but the class is teaching her how to put sentences together. She had already read up on the culture to learn more about their customs.
There is a lot of money at stake. County Tourism Director Diane Wieland said Canadians are spending $139 million a year in New Jersey and it represents a whole new market for the county’s $5.5 billion tourism industry.
“We’re taking the Canadian visitor seriously,” Wieland said.
Jean McAlister, of Atlantic Cape, said the college has previously supported programs to teach conversational Spanish, mostly in the health care industry, but was happy to expend to a French program.
“Tourism is the No. 1 industry in Cape May County. ACCC is very excited to be a part of this,” McAlister said.
Contact Richard Degener: