A Question of Accent

Spring flowers

Spring flowers

 

I speak French with an English accent. Try as I might, I can’t get rid of it, even though my French is now pretty fluent after 18 years here. As soon as I open my mouth, I give myself away as non-French. However, this is apparently not the disadvantage it might at first seem to be. All is revealed at the end of this post.

Giving yourself away

At one time, I used to get really fed up about my inability to sound French. A soldier from the nearby military camp once asked me for directions to the local tabac. I supplied them in what I thought was impeccable French, grammatically and accent-wise. ‘Thank you,’ he said. I fumed.

Similarly, I have lost count of the times that shop assistants look perplexed when we speak, since they assume that they won’t be able to understand us. Or they start replying in English. Now, of course, I should regard the latter as good customer service, but I can’t help feeling obscurely insulted.

Then there is a local medical specialist who wants to try out his somewhat inadequate English on you as soon as he realises you aren’t French. I beg him to speak French, since it’s rather important that you understand what’s going on where medical matters are concerned.

Particular difficulties

Accent and pronunciation are closely linked. Anglophones invariably get some aspects of pronunciation wrong, but they are relatively easy to fix. For example, they never taught us at school that, in French, you don’t put the stress on the first syllable, as we do in English, but commonly on the last one. So, in English it’s MISSion, in French it’s missION. This was a big step forward for me – but I had to move here to find that out.

But it’s not just the pronunciation: it’s also the cadence of the spoken language and the modulation of the voice that we Brits find difficult to master. And those rolled R’s are just a distant dream.

Good news

Nowadays, I am a bit more relaxed about it. I realise that native French speakers develop a musculature of the mouth and vocal chords and a way of forming the words that few people can mimic if they are not born to it. And French people find it hard to make some of the sounds that the English language demands; they really do say ‘ze’ for ‘the’.

The good news? According to The Connexion newspaper, a recent worldwide poll of language learners came up with a surprising result. The French people surveyed said that, of all the accents of foreigners speaking French, the English accent is the most attractive.

Our French friends’ reactions bear this out. When I grumble to them about having kept my English accent, they say, ‘Mais non, c’est joli!’ (No, it’s lovely).

You might also like:

French Regional Accents: Comment?
Exams French-Style
My French isn’t that bad, then
Found(ering) in Translation

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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37 Responses to A Question of Accent

  1. Pingback: Language Larks: What French Words Mean Depends on Where You Live | Life on La Lune

  2. amelie88 says:

    If it makes you feel any better, my father still has a French accent after 30+ years living in the USA. He speaks English fluently now and writes it nearly perfectly (some small mistakes pop now and then but they are very rare). His accent isn’t the stereotypical strong French accent like (Eet eez rrraaining oot-side.” But the ways he pronounced things–like guitar, he will pronounce it “guee-tar” or “dangerous” as “dan-jer-us.” Americans always know that he is not American but they never give him grief for his accent.

    We are used to hearing people speak with accents in NYC. Just thinking about it, I can’t understand my building’s superintendent on the phone. He is from somewhere in South America and his Hispanic accent is so strong and I always have to ask him to repeat what he is saying at least three times.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Cities are such cultural melting pots these days that it’s commonplace to hear people speaking one language with the accent of another. It doesn’t always make them easy to understand! In more rural areas, foreigners stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. But, the main thing really is to understand and be understood.

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  3. Osyth says:

    My husband has fluent French after 35 years of living here full and part time but his accent does not change from its default curious Massachusetts-Scouse. I on the other hand speak French in the style of a Spanish Cow but my accent is very good (I’m a natural mimic) …. On the whole is rather be him than me!

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    • nessafrance says:

      Your husband is quite a mixture, obviously! I am also quite a good mimic but this clearly fails me when it comes to the French accent.

      Liked by 1 person

    • David says:

      This reminds me of one of my friends and former coworker.
      We’re both English teachers, she’s a Japanese native.
      Her English accent is perfect, but her grammar and vocabulary lack here and there.
      On the other hand, my French accent is very strong, but my grammar and vocab are near native (my knowledge of them at least, I should be more careful in my every day use).
      People always confused her with a native, while some people were a bit “suspicious” of my knowledge of the language… Grrr… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        It’s a very unfair world David … Take heart from the fact that listening to a person string a sentence together with appalling grammar and vocabulary but with an excellent accent means the listener thinks one has ‘special needs’ 🙂

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  4. rolandclarke says:

    Hate to think what my accent is now, having been brought up speaking English, hearing my mother talk Spanish with her Chilean mother, and after two years trying to get my head around Quebecois (in Canada). I manage to slaughter a few languages having also tried to learn Dutch and German. Oh and living in Wales I mangle a few of their words. But then my sister has lived in France and Switzerland for about forty years, been at school over there including the Sorbonne, and yet she still has a distinctive English accent.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. David says:

    Ah, accents!
    I feel you. I’ve never been able to get rid of my French accent in English either. However, as you said just like with English accents in France, English speakers seem to really like French accents in English, even though I strongly dislike them, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. So, it’s not the end of the world, I guess.
    One tip though, it’s not a rolled R. That would be Spanish. The French R is guttural, that is it’s a sound that’s created in the throat, not the mouth.
    However, if you can’t do it right, don’t try too hard. An English R in French sounds way much better than overdoing the horrible throat clearing sound that it ends up becoming when English speakers try doing the French R but fail miserably.

    Liked by 2 people

    • rolandclarke says:

      I’m English but grew up with my mother talking Spanish to her Chilean mother. So my Rs in French get rolled – oops. Added problem is that I practiced my French mainly when I lived in Quebec for two years – Quebecois is nearest to a Breton accent. (And now I live in Wales where I keep hearing rolled Rs – or is it Ls).

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      • David says:

        Québécois is not really similar to Breton accent. Some people say, Berrichon accent. I’d be tempted to say 17th Century accent.
        Oh yeah, Welsh accent also has interesting R / L. I remember from a Welsh student back in the days.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Actually, they do roll the R down here, possibly because we’re not that far from Spain but also because of the Occitan pronunciation. But thanks for the advice!

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      • David says:

        Oh I see… Yes, in some parts of Midi-Pyrénées (I’m thinking Tarn here) I’ve heard some (usually older and rural) people rolling their Rs. I’ve always found that very strange.

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      • nessafrance says:

        We are in Tarn-et-Garonne and many of the elderly people were brought up speaking Occitan. I think that accounts for the rolling R, which is quite distinctive. It does sound a little Spanish.

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      • David says:

        Yeah, that must be a Occitan native speaker thing.
        When I think about it, my great-grandma was a native speaker (from Aveyron) and she rolled Rs too. But this is an Occitan thing, not a French language thing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        Yes, of course, this is not received French pronunciation and I take your point about the r being guttural rather than rolled in the ‘normal’ French accent today.

        But, because local people learned Occitan first and then French when they went to school, they retained the Occitan speech modes well into later life. We still have difficulty understanding some of our neighbours as a result. And Occitan, or its multiple variations, since it was never really a single heterogeneous language, was the prevailing dialect in a good proportion of France below a certain dividing line, which is somewhere in the Limousin.

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  6. I have a similar but sort of opposite problem here in Crete. My Greek accent is apparently very good. The look of me gives my being English away but when they hear my accent speaking the little I know of the language so far, they assume I’m fluent and they reply in Greek at ludicrously high speeds! I hate that the way I look gives away my ‘Englishness’ so I understand your frustration.

    Liked by 2 people

    • nessafrance says:

      You clearly have a gift for languages – not many people do. But, yes, I’ve also been there. If they think you speak the language they go off at 100 mph and don’t give any quarter. But that’s quite flattering.

      And the English ‘look’. My husband and I have a little game where we identify people’s nationality from the way they look in our local village. We are almost always right…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Beth says:

    I’m delighted to hear that many actually like English accents. I worked for many years on a trauma/neurosurgery unit and, because I speak a little French, I regularly took care of an 81 year old Frenchman who had been run over by a Mack truck while bicycling across the U.S. My name is Beth and he always called me “Buhtt”:0)). I adored him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I hope your French patient recovered. Quite a feat to cycle across the US at that age! I get the impression that people are usually pleased if you try to speak their language, even if your accent is appalling. It shows you are making an effort.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I often have arguments with my two and five-year-old granddaughter’s about my pronunciation. They have been speaking French from birth and the oldest attends a French preschool with native speakers. So neither one of them have an American accent. My daughter who became fluent later in life does have a very slight American accent. For example I say arbre and the two-year-old shakes her head and repeats it was a perfectly rolled r. I try to copy her and she shakes her head and repeats with an emphasis on the rolled r. Two more tries and she says, “Just say tree, Mimi.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It’s a bit of a put-down from a 2-year-old granddaughter, but don’t give up! My Swedish husband was first married to a German lady and he gave up speaking German when his very young daughter corrected his German. I can’t always tell the difference between the way I am saying it and the way it should be said. C’est la vie…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Greg Nicholas says:

    As I am sure Laury will attest, I have been told that when I speak French I don’t really have any accent. No matter how many mistakes I would make nobody could quite pinpoint where I was from ( England). I used to be quite pleased with this until I discovered that indeed the French really do love the English accent and find it so charming. I’ll have to pay more attention to the folks of Downton Abbey (upstairs of course!) Greg

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      That’s interesting. My husband is Swedish and French people have asked if he is from Germany or Poland, but never England!

      I have spent 18 years trying to rid myself of my English accent, only to find that the French find it charming. My friends are trying to be nice when they say that, but I can’t help feeling it still belittles one a bit. I guess the important thing is to be able to communicate, and I’m always pleased that I put a lot of effort into learning French properly when we arrived.

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  10. Sue Barnard says:

    Goodness knows how I must sound to French people. I’m often asked if I come from Normandie, or (even more puzzling) Belgium. I’m still not sure whether to be flattered or offended.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Vanessa
    Thank you-very good article. I’d be interested to know whether when you write in French for publications if people know your written French is of an ‘English’ variety?
    By the way I am in Marseilles running a trainimg programme in a few weeks and this will definitely be in English!
    Regards
    David

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks, David. Actually, I don’t write for publications in French. Although my written French is grammatically good, I lack the necessary, literary turn of phrase. So I would give myself away in that sense, too! Can’t win.

      Good luck with your training programme.

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  12. pfornari says:

    I’ll never foregte being told, over thirty years ago, that I had a ‘joli petit accent anglais’. I still have it. I think foreign accents are lovely in any language. So much better than clamming up. Unless the accent impedes communication, that is, or unless you are a high profile person who ‘should know better’, in which case you could be making a real fool of yourself. have you see this clip of my very own Prime Minister struggling with English? https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qtMiH9UjtXM

    I hasten to add, he has improved a lot since!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist, as my OH will attest, but generally I just make life more difficult for myself. Having an English accent has only once been used in a less than complimentary sense to me. A woman who rang our business line and tried to sell me something got shirty when I didn’t want to buy. She said, ‘Vous avez bien gardé votre accent!’ I rang off. Thanks for the clip!

      Like

  13. Miriam says:

    I can empathise with so much of what you said. The rolled R’s, being spoken to in English. For me, it was a dentist who insisted on speaking to me in English that was painful to listen to. And that’s after 38 years!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      As I said, I suppose one should regard this as an attempt at customer service. But when you’re dealing with dental or medical matters, comprehension is particularly important.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I used to tease my French and EU friends that maybe my Assurance Maladie would provide speech therapy so that I could develop the muscles needed to get my voice to make some of those very “French” sounds that I just can’t squeeze out of my American vocal chords (or is it cords?)! Fun Post, Vanessa!-Laury

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Funnily enough, I did actually consider whether I could go to a speech therapist to improve my accent. But I’m quite sure the assurance maladie wouldn’t have covered it!

      Like

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