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Reasons why I love Paris: the accent. Ponder that a moment. Why are we all enthralled with that sexy French accent that native-French-speakers have in English, yet we blush in shame at our butchery of the French language, as native-English-speakers? What gives with the double standard?
Sure, it is not all bad. Take this morning when I went to the watch repair shop, “Bonjour, Monsieur.” I continued in French explaining to the cute young repairman that my watch was losing minutes, and we chatted for a few of said minutes as he examined my ever-so-chic timekeeper from that ever-so Frenchy American shop, Taaaahrrrrrget. Finally he asked where my “petit accent” was from. I prefer being asked, because haphazard guessing has never been successful—no, I am not Belgian, British, Canadian, German, or Turk. Turk?
So, I dish, “Moi, je suis américaine.” Monsieur: “Oh, are you on vacation here?” Mais non! So, I explain that I live here. “Vous êtes jeune fille au pair?” Mais non! I’m an attorney! That elicits a joke about hoping to never cross me again. Of course, if I had my wits about me I would have retorted that it is nothing contentious, but is, rather, global migration, and if he would like to come open a watch store in the States, I could help with that. Of course I’m a bumbling idiot in any language, though, so that did not come out, so au revoir romance!
And how about au revoir accent? Not so long ago I enrolled in some one-on-one phonetics lessons at the Alliance Française. For fifty-five euros per hour, this has perhaps been my best language-learning expense to date, and speaking five languages in varying degrees of proficiency, I do not say that lightly. After several months, I no longer find myself repeating the same word multiple times (incorrectly!) to clients on the phone trying to get them to bring the appropriate documents. I no longer worry about committing legal malpractice merely by opening my mouth to advise a client en français.
While not perfect (I think I need to have a head cold to sufficiently produce all these nasal sounds), my pronunciation is much improved. How does it work? Once a week since January I have been spending roughly one hour at the language laboratory at the Alliance Française. About half of that time is spent independently listening and repeating, with the aid of a mirror to see that my mouth is doing what it should be doing (the visual is a good reinforcement of the auditory, and has had the side effect of making me take more time with my make-up). The other half of the time is spent with a professor where we work on a particular phoneme (sound) and I repeat silly sentences, much the same way that repetition of sounds enables a child learning his/her first language to finally arrive at mastery.
I will not lie: the first several weeks were horrendously humbling. It is especially bad to have near full comprehension of the language but not be able to make yourself consistently understood. I wondered why I was paying to subject myself to punishment that did not seem to be paying off. Then, petit à petit, little by little, something clicked, and I started to understand what the professor wanted from me, and I am glad I stuck with it.
There is no way that I could have continued to live here avoiding certain words. It is nice that now it really can be c’est bizarre rather than c’est étrange because the subtle nuance between the bizarre and the strange highlights why accent elimination and making oneself understood is of the utmost importance!
And of course one never wants to be perceived as rude. How many times would I jostle somebody in the metro but fail to apologize out of embarrassment over that bloody word pardon, with its infamously impossible French “R” and that nasal “on”? No more of that nonsense! Sure, this language is not easy for an adult Anglophone, but there are myriad resources here to help.
Amanda Nicole Zane is an American attorney living and working in Paris as she prepares for the French bar exams. She has written several articles for BonjourParis.
This could also help:
Rosetta Stone French Level 1: we all have to start somewhere when learning French. Rosetta Stone language programs help build a foundation of fundamental vocabulary and essential language structure. Gain the confidence to master basic conversational skills, including greetings and introductions, simple questions and answers, shopping, and much more.