Vat? I Haf an Akzent?

When I was learning French, which unfortunately was concurrent with my teaching of Psychology courses in the French language at Université Blaise Pascal, in Central France, one of my colleagues set a language goal for me: “You should be able to speak French without letting on that you are actually American.” 

Well, there’s a goal.

Speaking like a native was of course unrealistic, but it was difficult to even work toward because I didn’t have very much time for language classes.  Furthermore, what you really need to do to lose an accent is to be able to hear yourself speak, suddenly realize that you sound like George W. Bush, and then -- in desperation -- try to correct that sound.  None of my French language classes had been associated with a laboratory equipped with recording and feedback devices.  So, I never really heard myself speak, and for some time I remained blissful in my belief that I sounded like my friend Marie-France, originally from Bordeaux. Perhaps I did, but only when she was actually present in the conversation so that I could imitate her.

Part of the motivation to lose my American accent was powered by my belief in the cliché that the French are intolerant of poor French language use and even more intolerant of the sound of Americans in the act of butchering it.

I cannot and will not generalize to the whole population, but my experiences in at least three regions of the country suggest that the cliché is in fact a cliché.  First of all, I detected extreme relief and sometimes even actual approval from strangers (not just Marie-France) when I tried to speak French.  And then, when I could finally speak the language fluently, friends and strangers alike told me that they loved my American accent; that it was nice, and that I should not try to lose it. “Ma petite Paula,” my friend Dominique would croon, “don’t lose your accent.  It’s so mignon.”  Now I know she didn’t mean petite as in “small”, but since I am not short and was quite heavy as a child, I figured that any behavior that resulted in my being called “little” was a terrific thing.  It was at this point that I realized that my goal was to retain just enough American accent to be called “petite Paula,” a term of endearment, and not to be called “John Wayne.”

Strangely, while the reverse is also true, such that many Americans like a French accent on top of American English, the French are often suspicious of this fact (except, perhaps, for my 16 year-old who is now living in the US and has discovered that his French accent is very effective in attracting attention from girls). Many people told me over the years how ashamed they were of their French accents when they spoke English. Once the pronunciation part is nailed down, I insisted repeatedly, the French accent should definitely be preserved! Think of Maurice Chevalier, who started it all by singing “Thank ‘Eaven for Little Girls” in the movie “Gigi”! Then listen to Kevin Klein in the movie “French Kiss”! Look how we all love the actor Jean Reno when he speaks English!  (Plus, he is so cute, which is why I put a photo of him up there at the top.)

My husband, Markus, who sounds unmistakably Bavarian when he speaks German, does not have a German Akzent in English. Instead, being a parrot like myself, he sounds to most American ears like someone from Cincinnati with just a hint of “anywhere in Europe.”  The Cincinnati part comes from years of imitating his PhD advisor who pronounces his “A”s so hard that it makes my brain rattle.  I think it would be nice if Markus had a German accent, but when he tries to affect one he sounds like someone from Bombay, which doesn’t have the desired impact on my affections.

So, barring international conflicts between the countries involved, I say, “preserve your national accent.”  It sounds good, makes you seem thinner to people, and does wonders for your popularity in high school.

Paula NiedenthalComment