Saturday, October 11, 2008

Dumbing Down my French Accent

How many years of my life have I spent in the language lab, headphones squeezing the life from my weary brain cells, perfecting, perfecting, perfecting my pronunciation of French? Sentences like this pounding through my head:

Répétez: "La timidité de Virginie lui rendit la vie difficile."

I would répétez répétez répétez, the prof or language lab instructor at command central occasionally surreptitiously listening, piping in an unexpected correction that would make me jump.

I had initially learned French mostly by ear, beginning in middle school and continuing through college. After all those years of aural-oral phonetics calisthenics, I finally grew up and -- ta da! -- moved to Paris, pronunciation-proud and raring to go. Of course I made a few gaffes here and there.

Then, wham! At a recent dinner party, I was engaged in light banter with my table companion, an attractive-enough French businessman. In mid-conversation, he remarked, "Vous parlez presque sans accent." [You speak French with almost no accent.]

"Merci," I replied brightly.

"It was not a compliment," he retorted with a thin smile. "You should use more of an American accent. It would be more sexy than if you try to speak French too well."


"Ah-lore jer dwah parrlay frawnsay cawm saw?" I joked. "Say ploo sexee?"

He simply smiled.

I didn't know whether to be furious or thankful. First off, I considered whether it was a no-no to answer "merci" in response to a perceived compliment. But my honest initial reaction was an appreciative "Thanks! Yeah, I worked hard to reach this point." Maybe I need to come up with a new scripted answer for that "presque sans accent" comment, which I field from from time to time. Next, though, I was smoldering; not at him -- he was just teasing me, I think -- but at the notion that I ought to dumb down my French accent in order to be more alluring. Sheesh, I'd feel like a traitor to the legions of French instructors who drilled precise, proper pronunciation into my ears. And all the tuition money spent for the privilege!

I don't think I'm alone in this quandary.

Since living here, I have learned to smile appreciatively when someone says "Do I detect un petit accent? Vous êtes Anglaise ou Américaine?" Status quo accent is fine, charming, fun. I just don't want to have to adopt a fake-o American accent that I never really had.

If you want to practice improving your French accent (I still do!), here is a fun site for phonetics practice.


Priscilla said...

When my Polly visited France whilst living in Switzerland for 5 years, her accent was always pegged as Swiss. Her CH car sticker as well as her rolling Swiss accent added to further confusion. She would insist she was American, but having begun learning French at 4 years the accent was not American, but Swiss. Now she is back and I hope her former lovely accent of Indre-et-Loire will return.
BTW, I'd kill to be called sexy by an "attractive-enough" French businessman! Heck, I'd speak Klingon if it got me that complement!!! Lucky you.

Diary of Why said...

I get that all the time: "Tu parles presque sans accent," along with the occasional, "T'as un très petit accent, c'est mignon." I'm completely with you; I would love nothing more than to be able to pass for French (even though that will probably never happen). But to have worked so long, like you, to be told that my American accent is "cute?" (Unfortunately I haven't made it as far as 'sexy'). Ah, the things they never taught us in school.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Oh I wish.

Maybe I expressed it poorly, but the guy *definitely* wasn't saying that my accent was sexy! Au contraire, he was telling me that my accent in French lacked the requisite foreigner's charm because it was presque sans accent. He told me I needed more of an American accent...

Polly-Vous Francais said...

P.s. I am editing so it more clearly expresses what he said (it in French).

Going Like Sixty said...

Yeah, I get that all the time: "y'all ain't from 'round her ear ya!"

I think I will answer "Merci."

Anonymous said...

Accents are interesting, aren't they! I'm from Canada, yet I originally learned my French in the south of France. When I began my career as a French Immersion teacher, I started working with mostly people from Québec. Over the years, my accent has transmogrified somewhat to a Québecois one. It's now at the point where in France, I'm told that they can hear "some" Québecois, but it puzzles them when I say I'm not from Québec. In Québec, I'm told that I have more of an "international" accent, that it sounds like I'm a native French speaker from somewhere in Europe, but not France. I myself think that I pick up the
accent of wherever I currently am - and this happens in English too!

Rougaroo said...

My take, unfortunately, is that it was the old Parisian "put 'em in their place" ploy. Parisians pride themselves on being able to identify French accents from the provinces within 50km, all of which, of course, are inferior to Parisian. A hint of American would have meant that you were non-French, and therefore more mysterious.

I learned French in Paris as a child and now don't get a chance to use it much. When I do, however, I get asked if I'm Belgian! (which I take as a compliment, though we'd all rather be from Paris)

doomed to be fabulous said...

Truth be told, I've said to many of my French friends -- both men and women -- who are learning English that they shouldn't try too hard to lose their accent, because the French accent in English is knee-weakingly sexy. So I guess it works both ways?

Starman said...

Thank you for the phonetique site.

Iota said...

So you can't really win...

Anna said...

I got a similar comment a few times, and I also took it as the highest compliment. My local Indian takeout thought I was Canadian, people sometimes assumed I was a very dedicated English student, and once on the metro some men spent 20 minutes trying to guess where I was from. Some of my foreign ex-coworkers are fluent but still never grasped the accent, so I say congrats and keep going

maitresse said...

Oh, I would have been furious. Dumb down a major talent/achievement so some guy can find you more "sexy"? Puh-leaze. If you've got it, flaunt it-- *that* is really sexy.

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