Monday, January 13, 2014

Accents

I know it's been a while since my last post, and perhaps a rant isn't the best way to kick off the new year on my blog, but, well, I'm going to do it nonetheless.

I'm not sure if I've ever mentioned this before, but when I speak French I have a very strong and decidedly pronounced American accent. I suppose this shouldn't come as much of a surprise as I am American, French isn't my native language and I didn't even start learning French until I was way beyond the formative phonological years. Nevertheless I am just not one of those lucky people who can pick up an accent with ease; hell I can't even do an imitation of a British accent!

Now, generally speaking, my accent hasn't been something that has bothered me that much in all of my years in France. In fact, most of the time I give it little to no thought. People pretty much always understand me so I have no problems communicating, it hasn't been a problem for my work or any of our clients, and, well, I see it as only normal - French is not my mother tongue after all. It's pretty much been a non-issue for me.

In all of my time in France my only real regret accent-wise has been the fact that no one will EVER mistake me as French, not even for a minute.  The moment I open my mouth it is clear to all that I am a foreigner.  Some people have trouble determining if I am British, Canadian or American, but no one ever thinks that I am French.  But like I said, it's not a big deal and it's not particularly surprising.  Sure when I was younger I took some pronunciation and phonetics courses in the hopes of improving my accent, but it never really made a difference.  Neither have all the years I've spent in France  So I have come to terms with the fact that I have an American accent and I've been okay with that.  It's not like my accent is suddenly going to disappear and I'm definitely better off accepting it as a part of me than constantly fighting reality.

However, recently (ever since our move to Bordeaux really), I am developing an accent complex.  While living in Tours and Paris, I rarely received comments about my accent, and like I said it was for the most part a non-issue.  Sure from time to time I would have the foolish arrogant French person who would hear my accent and automatically think that I couldn't speak French.  Those are the people who would respond to my every comment or question in horribly broken English, despite the fact that I was speaking to them in perfectly good French.  I never really figured out if those people thought they were being helpful, just wanted to practice their English, or were just that dense, but I shrugged it off, continued speaking to them in French, and then went on with my day.  I would also have the occasional unpleasant encounter, often on public transportation, especially the night bus in Paris, where someone would decide to mock me and make fun of my accent.  But in those cases they were often drunk and I would always just ignore it and continue whatever I was doing.  But here in Bordeaux my experiences are vastly different from what I've been used to and I find that I am having a harder and harder time just being okay with my accent, let alone proud of it.  It has gotten to the point where I am starting to lose confidence and would rather avoid speaking when possible.

Why, you might ask?  Well, it seems that the Bordelais enjoy ensuring that I am aware of my French-language inferiority.  Pretty much every new person that I meet just jumps at the opportunity to mock me, make fun of me and comment on my accent.  And it's really starting to wear me down.  Granted, I should be somewhat used to it; Lionel and I have a few friends in Paris who would, from time to time, make fun of my accent or ask me when I was going to make an effort to lose my accent.  But, since they are close friends who we've known for years, I've always just shrugged it off and taken it as a joke, especially since the most guilty of our friends is PACsed with a Japanese girl who also has a very strong accent.  And sure, some of my family-in-law likes to laugh about how I pronounce certain words, but again, they are family so I would just try to take it as a joke and not let it get to me.

Here in Bordeaux, however, I'm not talking about close friends, people we've known for years or even family.  I'm talking about people I have just met feeling that somehow it is appropriate and acceptable to poke fun at my accent within the first five minutes of us being introduced.  And if it had only happened on one occasion I would just chalk that person up to being rude and socially unacceptable.  But no, this has happened countless times in the 8 months since we've moved here, and with the majority of the new people I've met.  I just don't understand.  Has my accent gotten worse?  Am I being overly sensitive?  Is this just a Bordeaux thing (I mean, perhaps all of those rumors about Bordeaux being a posh, aristocratic and full-of-itself city are true)?  Or were these people just raised in barns with no concept of what is appropriate in a social situation, especially when meeting a new person?  Can they all really just be that rude and offensive?  It is just shocking to me!  And please take note that NO, after mocking my accent and attempting to imitate it, telling me that you think American accents are charming is not going to make me feel better or make me think that you are any less arrogant and rude.  Generally I'm just going to add you to the growing list of people I don't like and walk away.  But if you are really lucky and I'm feeling particularly feisty I might make a comparison with the French native speaker's ability to speak flawless and accent-free English.

In the end I guess I just fail to see the point.  Do they think that I am not aware of the fact that I have an accent?  Because trust me, I know.  I know very well that my mouth just refuses to form the French "u," that I cannot get the "r" right to save my life and that nasals will just never be my forte (unless I'm sick...that generally helps).  But is it really not enough that (and not to toot my own horn or anything) I almost never make a grammatical error, that I have an extensive vocabulary and that I never have comprehension issues?  Do they feel the need to remind me of my failings?  Or does it just make them feel better about themselves?  Or perhaps they feel inadequate with their less-than-stellar language skills and they take pride in their ability to point out similar imperfections in others?  Whatever it is, in the end it just flat out rude, inappropriate and quite frankly, insulting.  I can not, for the life of me, imagine behaving similarly with a foreigner in the US.  I would never mock or make fun of someone speaking English with an accent, be they friend, family or new acquaintance, and I just can't understand what makes so many people in France think that it is acceptable to behave in such an ignorant and uncouth manner.  I understand that they are "proud" of their language, but come on, give me a break.  Can't they just keep their inconsiderate comments to themselves?

And now that I come to think of it, when I was studying in Italy I don't remember meeting a single Italian person who behaved like this and I definitely have an accent when I speak Italian as well.  Does anyone else have experience with this kind of behavior?  Has anyone ever made fun of your accent?  Is it just a Bordeaux thing or just a France thing?

20 comments:

  1. Hey Michelle,
    I am French living in the US, and when I saw your message, it reminded me of my situation. I have been living in Anglophone countries for 4 years and of course I do have a French accent when I speak English. Most of the time, people think my accent is cute/sexy/exotic.
    But once in class here in Tennessee, I was doing a presentation with another French classmate in English, and we could heard US students make fun of our accents and pronunciations with some nasty laughs and comments.
    So it is not a France thing, it is a stupid people things, rednecks, ignorant people that never went out of their country and their comfort zone, and when exposed to foreign things, do not know how to react and then laugh or mock them. I believe it has nothing to do with the country in itself. Anywhere you find they gens bêtes!
    Joanna

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    1. Hi Joanna,
      I'm so sorry to hear that you are having a similar experience in the US. I think you are right, it can happen anywhere. It really depends on how stupid, pompous and ignorant the person is...though for you in Tennessee I would say rednecks are definitely an issue as well! :)
      I've always been much more used to hearing people here in France refer to my accent as charming or exotic so I've just been very surprised by the unexpectedly harsh and rude reaction I've gotten since moving to Bordeaux. It's a shame but I'm just going to have to deal with it, grow some tougher skin and remember that I'm not the only foreigner with a strong accent...I know some people who have been living in France for 20+ years and they still have very strong accents. And hopefully soon I'll meet some less ignorant people!

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  2. This was a really honest and realistic account for how things are for native-English speakers that move to France. Sometimes I wonder when I see blogs saying, "I've been in France 5 months and today a French person thought I was French". Really? How can that be? Unless that person went to the French lycée or was exposed to French intensively at a young age I don't see how that can be. Of course, if the person only sticks to introductions (your accent is always better when you talk about things you repeat often), then maybe I could understand it, but if you have a real conversation with a French person then it's obvious.

    So you've become acquainted with the bordelais! I can't say that I've experienced the same thing living here, but then again I've never lived anywhere else in France. I've heard you speak French and honestly, like you said, you do speak very well. You have an accent, but you do understand everything that is going on and don't hesitate with your answers. You wouldn't be able to hold down a job involving speaking on the phone in French if your French wasn't good! I think you should be proud of that.

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    1. Oh yes, I would say I've definitely become much more acquainted with the Bordelais, and I obviously haven't always been enjoying it! I just keep reminding myself that not everyone says such hurtful things and that there are actually a lot of people who just move past my accent and compliment my French. I guess it takes all kinds of people to make the world turn.

      As for being mistaken for French after only a short time in France...I definitely don't believe the 5 months thing, but I did know an American girl who spoke French with a perfect accent...the only problem was the minute you tried to hold a real conversation she couldn't put together a grammatically correct sentence to save her life! But I just feels this reinforces my theory...some people are just very good at accents, others aren't. I definitely fall into the latter. And like you said, I have no problems with work or any situations really in France (though I suspect that if my car broke down and I had to deal with a very complicated car issue in French I would have some issues...but I would most likely have the same problem in the US!). And when people really make me angry I just think about how horrible they must be at languages and it makes me feel better. :)

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  3. I really feel for you....this was basically my daily life in Bretagne the entire time I lived there. It made me super miserable and very self-conscious, and it was why I dreaded any interaction there. The funny thing is - I don't have much of an accent any more, and it STILL happens to me from time to time when I go back to Bretagne (and only in Bretagne). It absolutely drives me up the wall, because like you, I just don't get what the point of it is. Do they get off on making others feel inferior? Other times I think it's often people who have so little power on a daily basis that they have to wield whatever power they can over others they perceive as weaker. No matter what the reason is though, it still sucks, and I am sorry you are going through it now.

    (PS. Obviously this is still a sore subject for me. lol)

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    1. Thanks! It's always nice to know I'm not the only one, though at the same time I'm very sorry that you have had to suffer at the hands of Les Bretons. Luckily I've had enough good experiences over the years in Tours and Paris and with my work that I still feel pretty confident in my ability to speak French, but at the same time it does make me feel a little unsure about the idea of spending the rest of my life in Bordeaux!

      I'm so jealous of you, I wish I could say I don't have much of an accent anymore, but I realize I will probably never make it to that point. So I just have to accept my accent, ignore the assholes who feel the need to go on a power trip and live my life. While it may always drive me crazy, people who behave like that when meeting a new person are definitely not the kind of people I want to have in my life anyway! I just need to do my best to ignore it.

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  4. Do they correct you too? That makes me bananas. Speaking softer, lowering your intonation at the end of the sentence, or making things sound like a question gives the impression of lacking confidence (+ body language), so it's giving the other person permission to take on a superior role and judge/correct you. I'm not saying you do this! But it's a comment that's been made to me, and it really made me think about how I'm saying things rather than what I'm saying. So since confidence cues can be cultural, maybe this seems to happen so often to anglophones in France because we're giving off the wrong signals.

    This is just a theory, since my first reaction is always "yessss, French people are the worst about this!" But like Joanna said, it's everywhere (though my confidence theory might apply there too, since confidence isn't always evident when giving a presentation!). There was a ticket seller in Vegas who was super rude to my husband, and she probably hears all sorts of accents.

    Sorry it seems so much worse for you in Bordeaux :-(

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    1. See that's the thing, people very rarely have the opportunity to correct me. I really don't make a lot of mistakes, and I "know" how to pronounce words, they just don't come out sounding French with my insanely American accent. I guess that because they can't find any other way to insult my French they just take advantage of my accent.

      Now that you mention it I do wonder about the impression I give off. I have heard it said that when I first meet a new person, especially depending on the situation, I can appear to be quite shy. Perhaps this has something to do with it. Though it's still strange that I didn't really have this problem in Paris. I'm sure in the end it's a combination of factors. And like you said, it can happen anywhere and even with people who are used to hearing accents.

      But oh well, I'm just trying to convince myself to take it with a grain of salt and not let these people get under my skin. In the end it's just not worth it and what really matters is that those close to me have no problems with my accent and that my accent doesn't create any problems for me at work. Though I do worry that if one day I want to change jobs, here in France, regardless of my native English, my accent in French could be an issue. Guess I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

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  5. Hi Michele! I can totally relate to how you feel... I believe it's a France thing, not just a Bordeaux thing. I've experienced much of the same ever since I moved back to France. "Moved back" because I am French, but I have lived in the US for almost 30 years. I've always had a french accent - I believe it doesn't matter how long you live in a foreign country or how well you speak the language, your native accent will always linger, ever so slightly. I think people in the US are more tolerant - and therefore more understanding and helpful - of foreign accents. A funny thing happened in my first few months back in France: I spoke french with an american accent! People would tell me that, and it'd cracked me up :) I don't get that anymore, but I struggle nonetheless with the vocabulary: it's much easier for me to say what I want in english than in french. I know it sounds silly but it's true... So people do look at me like I am a second rate person, and have a bit of a smug attitude that gets to me. It's not like that with everybody of course, but I'd say it's more the rule than the exception. And it's frustrating.

    To me, this attitude - towards you, towards me - is not just plain rude, it's also being ignorant: you did make the effort to learn and master the (very complicated) french language. That should account for something. They should show more respect for that. If they don't, well, their loss, not yours.

    That said, Bordeaux is an awesome city, isn't it?

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    1. It's very interesting to hear that you think that people in the US are more tolerant of accents. That's generally been my opinion as well but then I didn't want to be accused of judging France to harshly or being to lenient with the US. So it is interesting to hear this point of view expressed by a French person with a great deal of experience in the US.

      I'm shocked to hear that people would treat you differently in France now because you have more difficulty expressing yourself in French. I don't think it is surprising at all that this would be the case; I find that I sometimes just can't find a way to express myself the way I want in English or that I do a poor job of doing so. So I understand how you feel and I imagine that it must be very frustrating to have people treating your poorly as a result of your time spent abroad. I have to agree that it is very ignorant behavior and perhaps one day some of these people will learn that it is not appropriate to behave in such a way.

      And yes, I'm like the city of Bordeaux and the region more and more, even if I'm struggling to appreciate some of the Bordelais!

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  6. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the U.S. is a much more multi-cultural country and we are used to hearing lots of accents. I'm not excusing the French--that is quite rude. Of course you would have an accent! Unless you learn the language as a child, it is practically impossible to speak it like a native. The brain doesn't work that way. It's SCIENCE.

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    1. That's exactly how I see it...it's science so why feel the need to point something out that mostly likely cannot be changed. It's only natural that I would have an accent. And yes, some people have much less of an accent than I do, but they still have at least a little bit of an accent. It is nearly impossible to entirely rid yourself of your native accent once past childhood.

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    2. Wanted to add something here.
      Perhaps it is also a genetic issue. You are American, I am English, he/she is Japanese (I'll explain the choice of Japanese in a mo' but it is relevant).

      I'm talking about muscular formation. Speaking is a complex combination of exhaled air, vibration and muscular movements. Take any of the three nationalities I've suggested and get them to say AAAAAHH, with the tongue depressed and you won't hear much, if any difference, it's the mouth that forms the words and the accent.


      This relies on muscle memory, and muscle memory is gained through repetition, just like playing a musical instrument. So if you've spent your formative years speaking with just one accent, it's going to be very difficult to break this habit. There are still many words I find difficult to pronounce accurately, because of this. The letter "R" and words the have a double LL in them are classic examples of muscle memory. It's easy to say "ROUGE," with a good French sounding "R," because it's prominant but try "Droit" in a sentence. I bet it comes out more like "DWAT."


      Ok, onto the choice of Japanese. It was a while ago, that I heard of a practise adopted by Japanese parents, who wanted their children to learn English, so they could move to England/ America, to further their education and careers. The parent would take said child to the doctors, who would then cut the little piece of skin between the tongue and fleshy lower part of the mouth, if you look in the mirror and lift your tongue you'll see the part I'm talking about. This would help the child with the formation of certain words, which would normally be very difficult for them to say. A bit extreme, I know but there you go.


      The reason children adopt accents so much better and quicker than an adults, is because they've had less time at speaking with one accent and their muscles are still in a learning/growing state, so will adjust to new habits quicker.
      Hope this Helps.

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  7. Bordeaux people do have a special french accent, they make fun of people from Paris. In Paris we like to joke about the accent of the "chtis" (people from the north of France).

    We have many accents in France, and I think joking about it is considered acceptable and not especially rude, as long as it's not meant to bring someone down...

    Not sure if my comment helps, just my 2 cents ;)

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    1. I personally much prefer the Parisian accent and find the accent in the Bordeaux area to be a bit irritating, but I don't walk up to the people I know who have one and start to mock them for their accent! I would find that to be extremely rude to pick out one individual person and start making fun of their accent to their face, directly at them.

      But at the same time, I see what you are saying. People do generally like to joke about the accents in other regions of their country but I find this to be more in general rather than directed at one specific person, unless of course they are in a group of very close friends. I guess that is what frustrates me the most, you don't even know me and you feel like it is okay to mock and imitate my accent to my face. I just feel like it is not quite the same thing. We don't have a prior relationship.

      But thanks for the different point of view, I hadn't thought about it in comparison to making fun of regional accents within a specific country! Definitely something to think about.

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  8. Definitely annoying depending on the attitude that comes along with it!

    I'm one of those "they can't tell I'm not French" people (most of the time) - but it took me 8 years of almost-daily French classes, and 2-3 years at least of living here to lose the accent. And a profound love of all things related to phonetics. And I think 8 years of musical training also contributed.

    Nonetheless - after 15-ish years here, the accent (along with accompanying grammatical errors) still peeps out if I'm uncomfortable or flustered.

    One of my friends here likes to say she could hear my accent (others contradict her and say they never knew)... frankly, I think it makes her feel important to say it. Superior, as though her ears are better than others' because she could detect my accent. (Of course, she never said this until it came up in conversation that I was American.)

    But I am sure that most French people's accent in English is just as strong! And these people harassing you have no clue what it's like to live somewhere as a foreigner on a permanent basis, with all that comes along with it. As someone else pointed out, ignorance is everywhere!

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    1. Yes, ignorance is definitely everywhere! And deep down I know that when people react this way it is just some sort of power trip or attempt to bring me down and make themselves feel more important. Most of the time I have a feeling that they are in some way jealous that they don't speak another language as well as I do, accent and all. But that doesn't change the fact that it frustrates, annoys and angers me to no end!

      I wish I could say that I believe that one day I too will be one of those "they can't tell I'm not French" people, but I know this will never happen. I've spent about 6 years total in France (though not all consecutively) and while my grasp of the language has improved by leaps and bounds, especially my grammar, vocabulary and ability to understand and converse, I also realize that my accent has not changed a bit. Luckily, that means it hasn't gotten worse, but it also hasn't gotten any better.

      In the end I have little choice but to deal with it, especially considering the fact that this will almost certainly be an issue for the rest of my life. But that doesn't mean I will always take it calmly and I'm definitely not above pointing out the other person's linguistic flaws in English!

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  9. Hi - I too am an American living in Bordeaux and yes, I have an accent also. (I feel like I'm introducing myself at some support meeting - lol!). I have been married to a French man for 18 years and we generally speak English together as we met in the States. Now that we live here (2 years) - we speak more French and it's frustrating to be the only one in the family with the Amercian accent! My children are all young and picked up the French accent easily. It's hard - I understand - confidence and pronounciation have been my hardest hurdle in the French language and can easily fluster me. I actually do better in a conversation when I just get on a role and talk. Yes, many people also say I have an accent but they have also said that I speak French really well. (I say I'm still learning). It's probably the hardest thing I am still over-coming after being here for 2 years. (We still speak English in our home - so I live in a splilt-personality world!). Yes, I do run into many rude people, but most I don't know well (shop-keepers etc...) and I really don't care what they think. For the most part my better friends are fine about my accent. Some people don't get past it - but then again - we are not friends with everyone we meet in American either. Good luck to you. Thanks for writing an honest post about accents - as it's truly - there seem to be people who are more sensitive and others who are more open-minded. Nice meeting you and finding your blog.

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    1. Hi Jennifer! Nice to hear from you...I've been lurking over at your blog for the past year or so (since making the decision to move to Bordeaux really). I definitely understand the issues related to confidence, pronunciation and accent when living abroad and the challenges that language can present. I can't imagine what it would be like for you to have children as well...I've always thought that would make language issues even more complicated!

      I guess what really shocks me is just the fact that I didn't really have these problems or experience these kinds of reactions when living in Paris. I didn't expect that to change when I moved to Bordeaux, especially as Bordeaux is a big city with universities and international industry. I would have thought people here would have been more open-minded and more used to encountering and conversing with foreigners. My mistake.

      So, prior to this I was much more confident in my ability to speak French, but now, with all of the comments and jokes I receive regarding my accent, I can feel my confidence dwindling. Even if I don't know the person and don't really care what they think, after hearing the same things and putting up with the same rude attitudes over and over, I can't help but let it affect me in some way. Even if I shouldn't.

      I know that overall I speak French very well and that it is just my accent that is an issue...a lot of people compliment me on my ability to speak the language...but what bothers me the most is that my accent is the one thing that is the absolute hardest (if not impossible) to change. I mean, what do these people think, that I can go back and change where I was born and what language I grew up speaking?

      In the end I know that I just need to move past it and grow thicker skin because I am probably going to have to get used to these kinds of comments. Afterall, my accent isn't very likely to become French, so I just have to learn to deal with the haters and be happy that not everyone thinks this way.

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  10. Hi Michele and followers. I've just found this blog and what a revelation it is. I'm an Englishman who's been living in France for 12 years.

    I'm not naturally gifted in the language department and the idea of speaking French was quite daunting to say the least. However, to my joy, I managed to, maitrise la situation. I should also add that I can ( at least so I've been told), do pretty good impressions of most accents, as long as it's done in English. As regards to the French accent whilst speaking French, NO WAY, IMPOSSIBLE. I am and always will be English.

    At first this was dis-heartening. Maybe it was an acceptance thing, I'm not sure. Us English have never been fully forgiven for the Burning of Jean d'Arc, (I'm sorry, I really am). But now, I'm kinda proud. Thats my heritage, my roots. My girlfriend loves my accent and my Boss at work really likes it when I talk to his English speaking clients for him. My friends have accepted my accent and my identity for who I am.

    I started learning French in the Haute Savoie, but now I live in the south. What a shock! The accent is completely different here. Even going to the boulangerie was an experience. From asking for "PAHN," and getting a look of bemusement, to realising I should have asked for "PENG."

    What I'm trying to say is, don't let your accent get you down, use it, it makes us just that little bit more interesting. And if you get any haters giving you a hard time, just suggest that perhaps they would prefer to speak in English with a perfect English/American accent.

    One last thing about accents. When my girlfriend speaks (we are 100% French speaking), I don't hear her accent, it's how she speaks. It's only when she speaks a few words of English that her French accent really becomes audible. Ask your Husband to speak first in French and then in English, you'll hear the difference. Love the Blog, keep up the good work.

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