I have an American accent. I never think about it in the U.S. of course, where I speak altogether “normally,” but I usually don’t think about it much in France, either. My untrained ear doesn’t hear the difference between my vowel sounds and the vowel sounds of native speakers. I mean, I’ve heard some very Americanized French — the kind of pronunciation that is completely lacking in swallowed Rs and nasal syllables — and I know I’m far beyond that. Nevertheless, something about the way I speak distinguishes me as une étrangère.
I asked for directions in the street the other day, and the man I’d asked said, “You speak English, yes?” then proceeded to give me the instructions in English. Similarly, I’ve had shop owners switch into English for me even when I wasn’t struggling to communicate in French. And last week, my host father — (a part-time composer) — asked me to read a few lines in a song he was recording because he wanted the effect of ton accent américain. Apparently, it’s pretty easy to recognize and now I’m well aware of it.
Suddenly being conscious of an accent I can’t distinguish is like wondering what the back of your head looks like: it’s a part of the image you present to the world every day that everybody except you gets to see. In some ways, of course, it’s a little discouraging to think that no matter how many years I spend studying the language, I’ll always be distinguishable as a “non-native” by an accent I can’t overcome. On the other hand, I like to think that this little tip-off to my “foreigner” status can accord me some grace not granted to natives. I become “the poor little American who doesn’t know what she’s doing” instead of simply “that jerk.” And it’s worth noting that among French teens (like the high school students whose classes I assist with once a week), British English is boring because it’s what they learn at school, but American English is cool because it’s the language of almost all their pop music and a lot of their favorite movies. So my lingual handicap does have some advantages.
Nevertheless, I am making efforts to improve my pronunciation. It turns out that pronouncing French well requires more than learning to swallow your R’s and embrace the concept of the nasal vowel. It’s a little more nuanced than that. For example, thanks to my French phonetics class, I now know that there is a total of four nasal vowels in the francophone repertoire. Four. And at least three of them, though only slightly different from one another, are essential to communication: they are the difference between bread and a bridge, between time, tuna and color. And don’t even think about mentioning a hole in one! I had to ask my nine-year-old host sister for help with that in order to complete my homework last weekend. How do you pronounce this term here? “Un trou en un,” she replied simply. Wait, what were those last two syllables? “En un.” Un un? Un en? En eh agh … oh boy.
Since I’ve only been using two nasal vowels in all my years of speaking French, I’m making efforts to correct my pronunciation flaw, but I’m a little uncertain as to how I should go about practicing a thing like that. Should I sit at my desk repeating the syllables “un, an, on”? I admit, it could be a useful exercise, but I can’t help feeling a little like a duck. Nevertheless, after all the other study abroad experiences that require me to step out of my comfort zone, take on incompetence and risk feeling a little stupid, I suppose I’m prepared to quack my way to better pronunciation. The rewards to be reaped from this exercise could be as satisfying as getting “un trou en un.”