travel

Dumbing Down my French Accent

French Accent shopHow 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 French menushould use more of an American accent. It would be more sexy than if you try to speak French too well."

Ouch.

"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.

Polly is a Boston born Baby Boomer who lived on the Left Bank in Paris and is still blogging about it at Polly-Vous Francais. © 2006-2008, Polly-Vous Francais, all rights reserved.

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