Stranger in a Familiar Land: On Speaking French as a Foreigner
- Published on Sunday, 04 March 2012 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
That’s Français, with the
Accent on “Eh?”
How strong is my accent in French? Ask the waiter who took my order in this café. I guess I was sitting a little too close to the window...
Now that I have lived in Paris long enough to age a really good bottle of Cognac, visitors from the United States often say to me, “Gee, you must be fluent in French!” To this I invariably reply, “My French can only be described as: well, pretty good, I guess.”
For the record: yes, I speak French. I can engage in conversations and business transactions in French. Should the occasion arise, I can engage in arguments and pillow talk in French, although I prefer to avoid the former and my Anglophone wife strongly prefers that I avoid the latter.
But I would not call myself fluent. “Fluent” means flowing, and my French doesn’t so much flow as gurgle, spewing forth haltingly and sometimes tainted, like water from a leaky pipe.
I usually have no problem making myself understood, but I still make lots of mistakes, especially with verb forms and noun genders. And since noun genders also affect the articles and adjectives, about 80 percent of any given sentence is still fraught with pitfalls for me. (But hey– the adverbs? Got ’em nailed.)
Also, once in a while I still get caught in a “whatwhirl.” This is a term I made up to refer to an experience that I am sure many foreign visitors to France will recognize. It goes like this:
You take a seat in a café.
The waiter comes over and asks for your order.
Suppose you want a glass of red wine and have been mentally rehearsing how to say it for several minutes now.
You say, “Un vin rouge, s’il vous plaît,” in what sounds to you like clear, perfectly comprehensible French.
The waiter says, “Un quoi?” (”A what?”), and you launch into a rapid-fire back and forth exchange:
“Un vin rouge.”
“Un vin rouge.”
“Un vin rouge.”
“Un vin rouge.”
“Un vin rouge.”
“Un vin rouge.”
“Ooooohh! Un VIN ROUGE!!!”
The key point is this: when the waiter finally gets it, you perceive absolutely no difference whatsoever between his pronunciation and yours. And to think that the French complain about American tourists ordering Coca-Cola.
One reason red wine can be a tough buy for Anglophones is the “r” in rouge. The French “r” is a kind of dry gargle in the back of the throat, a sound that we don’t make in English unless we have just inhaled a gnat. Normally I don’t have much trouble with it any more (or, now that I’ve learned to pronounce it, with expelling inhaled gnats), but it can still throw me if it happens to appear in a word right before or after another non-English sound, like one of the French u’s.
This is a sore point for Anglophones and the most typical indicator of an American accent. In English we have one long “u” sound, as in “rude,” “dude” and “duuuuude.” But in French they have two: one that’s deep back in the throat (spelled “ou”) and one that’s way forward in the lips (spelled “u”). Neither exists in English — our “u” is between the two.
Failure to distinguish correctly between these vowels can change the meaning of a word. One nice example, because the terms are exact opposites, is dessus and dessous (above and below). A less nice example is en route, which means the same thing it does in English, and en rut, which does not mean “in a rut,” but rather “in rut,” zoologically speaking.
Personal confession of the week:
To this day I still get these confused – I tell people I’m en rut when I’m actually en route. Although sometimes I’m both, so technically it’s not a mistake.
A not-nice-at-all example of this problem is the distinction between cou and cul (the “l” is silent). Inexperienced French speakers beware: the former means “neck” and the latter is also an anatomical term, but it’s a part of the body that in polite society is left unmentioned, unseen and untouched — although not unused if you’re sitting down. So no matter how much you might like it, you should never ask your lover to kiss your neck.
Naturally, the hardest French words for the hapless Anglophone are the ones that have two or, dieu forbid, three of these sounds in a row, like truite (trout), fourrure (fur) and serrurerie (locksmith’s shop).
This is something of a handicap for me. Although I’m always happy to have another reason not to buy my wife a fur coat, I am forced while in France to maintain a strict trout-free diet. Also, I have to be very careful never to leave the apartment without my keys – if I lock myself out, I’ll have to hire an interpreter, or perhaps a mime, to help me get back in.
So, for the record: yes, I speak French with an accent. Some might say a heavy accent. A thick accent. An accent that could serve as a retaining wall for the Seine.
This is something that I think about from time to time. Not often or seriously enough to get off my cul and make an actual effort to improve my pronunciation, but from time to time. And I have noticed that there are three common fallacies about accents that are as widespread as they are specious:
People who speak with an accent can’t recognize accents.
To coin a phrase, yes we can. I know when I hear accented French, I know Parisian from provincial and, best of all, I know when I hear an American accent worse than my own. Which, of course, really makes my day. And my evening, and my night, and then I go to sleep with a smile on my lips, savoring the knowledge that somewhere out there someone is butchering French into an even gorier mess than I am.
It’s not rude to imitate someone’s accent to their face.
Once in a great while somebody decides that it would be fun to talk to me imitating my accent, apparently operating on the presumption that I can’t tell (see F#1). This is usually meant to be good-natured joshing, so I try to take it in the spirit in which it is intended.
But I fail. Accent impersonators take note: it’s not funny. Or, rather: eet eez nawt fun-nee.
You can possibly, maybe get away with this if you’re mocking a very close friend, someone with whom you have a tradition of chops-busting. But an accent is one of those things, like the way someone walks or the shape of their nose, that is theoretically possible but exceedingly difficult to change. So imitating someone’s foreign accent is like making fun of them for limping home from the rhinoplasty clinic. You neckhole.
If you live in a foreign country long enough, you will eventually lose your accent.
Ah, if only this were true. It seems logical enough, but in point of fact, learning a foreign language is one of those dauntingly complex skills like playing the violin, half-pipe skateboarding or understanding Facebook’s privacy settings: if you don’t start during childhood, you’re probably never going to master it.
The sad fact is that if you don’t get your tongue and lip muscles accustomed to pronouncing foreign phonemes before you’re out of your teens (in other words, just when you’re obsessed with getting your tongue and lip muscles accustomed to another activity entirely), your speech habits will be too ingrained to change significantly without incredible effort.
I say “without incredible effort” to allow for the possibility that someone, somewhere has managed to do it, but I have yet to meet anyone who spoke only one language until adulthood and then learned to speak another with a flawless accent.
Since the “effort” part, credible or not, is pretty much a deal-breaker for me, I am resigned to speaking my own peculiar (although I prefer to think of it as distinctive) French for the foreseeable future. And, after that, for the vaguely visible, the dimly imaginable and the totally unknowable future as well.
When the moment finally comes for me to utter my last words, two hundred years from now (I have great faith in stem cell research), if my utterance is in French, it will be uttered with an accent.
I just hope that the scene doesn’t go like this:
“Une ambulance, s’il vous plaît!”
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Reader Barney Kirchhoff writes: "After 34 years in Paris, my line when people gush, "Oh, you must be fluent in French!" is, "Yes, I speak it like a native of Paris . . . . Texas."
Reader David Spector writes: "This piece is hilarious! When we asked the hotel clerk for directions to Prada, she made believe that she didn't know what store we were referring to. She spoke impeccable English and insisted that we repeat the name several times. Finally she said, "Oh, Prrrrrrrrrada with a very dramatic 'r.' I had to restrain myself from lunging over the desk and choking her."
Reader Panama Red writes: "David Jaggard has it right. Once every couple of years, I am blessed with the opportunity to come to France and hang with my friends in the pre-post-modern folk band Mary-Lou and brush up on my linguistic skills.
"Back at home I have tried to explain forming the French 'R' sound with little evidence of success, either in my explanation or the formation, but every once in a while in France, my tutor will give me her sunniest smile and congratulate me on saying 'rue' or even 'gendarmerie.' The next time, I confidently say the same word, it will come out as a train wreck.
"That odd little placement of the sides of the tongue against the upper teeth while simultaneously making a discreet little gargling sound off the middle and back of my tongue sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, even though it seems to me that I am doing the exact same things with my mouth every time.
"As to mocking someone else's pronunciation, I live in Tennessee and the next crossroad up from my house in the country is, in honor no doubt of the the French coming to our aid in the Revolutionary War, named 'Versailles Road.' When my Francophone friends visit me, they naturally mock the locals' pronunciation. They walk around all day saying to each other 'Verr-say-yuls,' coming down really hard on that 'R' and cracking up. They are endlessly (and easily) amused and will keep this up for hours."
Reader Carole Clark writes: "I go to Paris twice a year, but cannot speak French. Once I asked a bus driver if he went to Rue Rivoli.
"YES! I got on the bus."
Reader Jim Hutchinson writes: "David, if I may help you understand the difference; it is age-related. Up until age 60, I was en rut, since then I more often find myself en route."
Reader Jackie Martin writes: "My husband and I spend at least a month in Paris each year. I am conversational in French, but my husband not at all! He is from Jersey City, and his attempts at French pronunciation make one cringe. One morning he went to the boulangerie to buy me a croissant. Our favorite shop was closed, so he went to another one and came home and handed me the surprisingly heavy bag. Imagine my surprise when I opened it to find a little pink marzipan pig! Apparently his heavily accented 'croissant' became 'cochon' to the ear of a native speaker. He now points to what he wants."
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