Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Learning to love your accent

October 6, 2010

Forget being hung up about your accent.   Communication is governed by the rule of subjectivity, with enough opportunity for misinterpretation when speaking in your mother tongue. Having a foreign accent is a universal condition of learning a new language.  Embrace yours with pride.  Few foreigners who learn new languages as an adult, manage to suppress their accent even when they speak fluently – so accept the inevitable.

However, expect your ego to be challenged.  Unless you are supremely thick skinned, letting go of inhibition demands ample reserves of self-esteem, good humor and humility.  Keep reminding yourself of the progress you’re making.  Focus on practicing as much as possible and refuse to succumb to self-consciousness.  Few of us are naturals in more than one domain.  If linguistics is yours, terrific, but it probably isn’t, so persistence will have to get you over the hump.

If the natives seem keen to remind that you are a foreigner despite your best efforts, take solace knowing it’s because their accent when speaking your language is likely much worse than yours.  Unlike you, who are curious and attempting to bridge the divide, they prefer to save face rather than put themselves out there.  They may be thinking, aren’t they embarrassed? but deep down they envy your chutzpah.

Refuse to be intimidated even when the person you’re speaking with claims not to understand your accent because they understand English, not American (or the reverse).  There is a persistent misconception that American English and British English are two languages as distinct as German and Swiss German or Castilian and Catalan.   Neither is considered superior, they are just incompatible.

Whether they understand you usually depends on which accent their non-native speaking ‘English’ teachers had.  Until recently, most textbooks used ‘British’ English expressions.  A contributor to difficulties overcoming the accent barrier is the fact that English-language movies and TV shows here tend to be dubbed rather than subtitled.  Unless they are up to the challenge of  a film in V.O. (original version), The French don’t get a chance to voyeuristically observe our native species and prime their ears the way we do watching subtitled films.

An anecdote to recall when worried about mispronouncing a name:French friends I’ve known over ten years, set place cards at dinner parties with my name misspelled.  Why?   Because they can’t pronounce it and that means that no matter how many times they’ve asked me to spell it in conversation, they can’t commit it to memory.  I have an amusing collection, featuring best guesses recorded in elegant calligraphy: Katty, Kessie, Kaysi, Cathie, Kacie, Kezie…  Casey, as in Casey-at-the-bat Stengel, is a phonetic conundrum.

I’m no exception.  Our son Devin’s experience is more frustrating because devin is the French word for soothsayer or seer.  They know how to pronounce it – de vin – as in some wine, emphasizing the first syllable, except that we chose a Gaelic name for our son which means poet, and has an entirely different pronunciation. All to say that there is absolutely no reason for you to get uptight about garbling the pronunciation of Yves Saint Laurent.

We are not alone.  There are dozens of nationalities speaking French with an accent.  It’s just that until your ear is attuned you can’t detect the nuances.Not just are Portuguese, Italians, Germans, Moroccans and Senegalese speaking with marked accents, but so are people from different regions of France.  Someone from the Berry or Midi sounds almost as foreign to a Parisian as we do.

Misery loves company and you are in the best, as accents French mimic and mock most are those of other Francophones – especially Belgians and French Canadians.  Note that I have yet to meet a Walloon or Montreal native who made fun of anyone’s accent when speaking French.

It’s not a scientific study but I have anecdotal proof that getting over yourself and focusing on the emotions and words of the person you are speaking with rather than being self conscious or resenting they’d never guess how funny, sensitive, smart or charming you really are – is the magic formula for rendering your accent inconsequential.   When I began volunteering as a weekly visitor in a local hospital, I felt uncomfortable walking into rooms introducing myself to strangers.  They could sense it and everyone seemed to bring up my accent or foreign origins.  It started to really annoy me.  When I discussed it with more experienced volunteers, they found it a bit odd but reassured that everyone had difficulties starting out.

Time passed and one day about six months into my weekly visits it occurred to me that I couldn’t recall the last time someone had inquired if I was Anglaise (for some odd reason they find it hard to imagine that Americans can speak French). The only thing that had changed was forgetting about me and focusing on the person I was with.  Our French born, bilingual children assure me that my accent remains stubbornly intact.

Harriet said

October 14, 2010 at 4:26 am

Count me as one who loves it when a French person is interested enough to help me with my pronunciation.

Nancy said

October 18, 2010 at 7:56 pm

I recently spent two weeks in Paris struggling not only with the language but my accent. I was delighted when a shopkeeper took time to help me with my pronunciation. He later told me that my accent would be better suited to the French spoken in southern France! C’est la vie! 🙂

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