On having an accent (in France)

After six years in France, my skill in the language is one of those things I just don’t feel like talking about, along with how long I’ve been here.

But I’ve come to realize that I’ll never stop being asked about either of those things, and French people will never stop commenting on my level of skill in the language.

I mean that in both directions—strangers and people I’ve just met always feel very competent judging my ability, be it “C’est étonnant, vous n’avez vraiment pas d’accent!” (It’s amazing how you really don’t have an accent!) or “Il y a un accent, quand même!” (I mean, because you DO have an accent!)

It used to only annoy me when it was criticism. Now it annoys me both ways, because I know that strangers and friends generally say whatever the heck they want without really thinking it through, and the next person I talk to will probably have an entirely different, equally useless opinion of the way I speak in the language in which I mostly live my life.

Here are a few experiences I’ve had that have irked me through my six years here.

1) At a party: Three non-francophone girls (Erasmus students) are seated on the couch. A young Frenchman near them says, “Why don’t you all speak so we can tell which one speaks French the best”?

2) With two American friends and a French girl who points to one of us, “I mean, I think YOU do really speak the best of the three of you.”

3) A friend speaking to me, talking about an English girl he had met the week before: “I mean, not to offend you, but really, she speaks better than you, like she has no accent at all.”

Maybe it’s because I’m a language teacher and I’m interested in teaching pronunciation. And also that I know what most people believe about accents and language learning is not true. And that most people are not actually qualified to accurately judge someone’s skill in a language, especially upon hearing them say two sentences. And that having a slight accent DOES. NOT. MATTER.

I don’t actually mind having my slight accent. I like that my doctor knows who I am without asking when I call for an appointment. The only reason I would like to not have one anymore is so that people would stop commenting on it. The flaw with that logic, of course, is that they comment on it just as much when they think there isn’t one. I often have some slight variation of this conversation:

Random person I have probably just met: Wow, you speak French really well. You don’t really have an accent.
Me: Thanks, that’s very kind of you.
Random person: No really, I mean it.
Me: … …

I really just mostly don’t want to talk about how I talk. It feels very personal to me, and I’ve put a lot of effort into it over the years, and I’ve watched other people put a lot of effort into it, and I don’t feel like it should be a topic for light discussion with strangers.

Does anyone else have similar feelings, or similar experience? Does this happen everywhere, or is it particular to France?

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19 thoughts on “On having an accent (in France)

  1. I had an experience a few months ago where I went with the person replacing me in my coloc to EDF and the woman said that he had a better accent than me and thus spoke better French despite only being in France a little over a year. I found it really rude! When it comes to speed, vocabulary, and grammar, my French is actually better than his, but that’s besides the point. He has an ear for accents. I don’t. You can repeat two distinct sounds that are almost the same, and I cannot for the life of me hear the difference. I just don’t. I will always have an accent, and I’ve mostly stopped caring. I know I’ve progressed leaps and bounds since my first year and that’s enough for me. For now at least.

    I had a similar experience in German class. All the French students could hear the difference between two different vowel sounds, but I couldn’t. They sounded the same to me. The German lectrice literally started shouting the two sounds at me and asking how I couldn’t hear the difference and got really frustrated. Of course, this called all the French students (all 18 years old) to start snickering and also repeating the sounds. I would never have done the same to one of my students.

    To me, if you can get your message across and be understood, there’s no problem.

    I feel like Americans comment on accents a lot. At home, I have heard so many people comment on an Indian accent, or a Mexican one, etc. It’s hard to lose an accent.

    • Yeah, it’s also funny how for many people accent=language skills.

      That behavior from your German lecturer is so shocking that I feel certain some other students were shocked as well and just didn’t say anything. Though I guess there are probably untrained language lecturers around the world who think that learning pronunciation actually works that way. (then again, who knows how it works?)

  2. I think a lot of it is just that tiresome thing of being singled out as un-French all the time. Fine in some circumstances, but it gets really old if you’re just trying to get through the day. In a bar the other week a guy came up and wanted to speak English with us. He actually turned out to be an okay guy, but we were very cold at first because the second we walked into the bar all his little friends were saying things about us in French and going “Where is Brian?” etc., so news flash, we don’t actually want to give you free English lessons!

    • Yeah, I think you’re right about the pattern of feeling foreign. I don’t very often want to talk about my foreign-ness, unless it’s relevant to the conversation. But then again, I probably bring it up more often than most people want to hear as well….

  3. (first – hi! I did a year of undergraduate in Poitiers and loved the city and still miss it, and found your blog a few weeks ago through some nostalgic googling)

    I have a discernable American accent in French, and while my accent faded when I lived there, it never went away entirely. And it is, by all accounts, more of a Parisian French accent, due to the way I was taught in school; I live in Vermont now and am picked out a mile away when I try to use my French in Quebec.

    More than that, though: I grew up in Boston. I have only a faint trace of the stereotypical Boston accent, and when I tell people where I grew up they say “but you don’t have an accent!” in varying tones of astonishment and praise. It’s consistently annoying. So i hear you.

    • Ha! That’s funny and I’m sure annoying about the Boston accent. I do like the Boston accent so for me I guess it would be a remark of disappointment. But I’ll try to keep my mouth shut if I’m ever tempted to make a comment like that!

      • Oh, it’s not making the comment, necessarily – it’s the people who say it like they’re proud of me, really, for kicking such an awful accent. Like they imagine me growing up entirely bereft of the letter R and then I went to college and got educated. I’d imagine people who grow up in the south without much of a southern accent have the same frustrations!

      • People in the States generally don’t pick up on the fact that I’m from Texas to even ask me and notice I don’t have an accent. But in France people want to know if I have one—I always feel a little bad to disappoint! But I wouldn’t be surprised if other ex-Texans had a similar experience to yours.

  4. I was about to say I totally agree, but then I realised I can be guilty of doing this too. Gwan’s right though – it’s when it makes you feel singled out it isn’t nice. I think accents are a fascinating topic for discussion, but if I’m the only foreigner about, people commenting on mine makes me feel self conscious.

    Maybe the trick is to live in a part of France with a really strong regional accent. Then you could insult people by kindly replying, “I can hardly hear your accent either – you sound just like a Parisian.”

    • I was just in Marseille and Montpelier this weekend and it seemed like that comment would totally work there. Unfortunately in Poitiers most people speak with a very standard accent. Sigh.

  5. It really bothers me when I meet someone for the first time and I get, “Vous avez un petit accent!” How am I supposed to take that? We all know that that could mean many things.

    And then that leads to them asking me where I come from and when I answer that I’m Canadian I get the inevitable, “But you don’t sound Canadian!” And I think to myself, “Well, that’s because Québec does not equal Canada.” I should just say that out loud next time.

  6. L says:

    Hahahahahaha. My life. ALL the time. It’s true that responses vary from no accent to “No, I can definitely tell you’re American, you have just a little bit of an accent.” Although I do get people guessing I’m Belgian, Alsatian, or generally from a place far from where I am meeting them. I really worked on my accent because I was sick and tired of people asking me my life story when I was in a shop. I’m from California, so as soon as that gets out people go on and on about Los Angeles and Hollywood. I’ve also worked with kids quite a bit and I hate it when they laugh at me for a grammar/pronunciation mistake. That’s one of the worst for me, a 9 year old sniggering and pointing in front of a class when I make a mistake (and destroying my authority in the process).

    • My students rarely but sometimes do pick up on the abnormalities in my French, though really I think they’re just looking for a distraction because it’s often the least important or least noticeable things that they pick up on. So I don’t really care what they think. But it does help to be able to yell at them without saying anything that sounds absurd.

      Glad to hear I’m not the only one annoyed by this!

  7. Andromeda says:

    Yesssss, still happens so regularly it makes me bananas. Not so much at work, because Luxembourgers have a pretty strong accent, so I think the French are genuinely surprised how slight mine can be (depends on the day and how much German/English I’ve been speaking, lol). Back in France though, anytime I meet a new person I cringe just waiting for the comment, to see if it’ll be nice or not. Either way, it just seems rude. Even if it’s supposed to be a compliment, the fact that anyone would comment on it seems like stating the obvious. It’s like “Hey, you’re really short!” Uh, yes, thank you, I do what I can . . . I want to say it’s a French thing, pointing out how different you are from “normal.” Maybe I will start doing like Canedolia suggests, complimenting their accents!

    I was going to say it never happens in the states, and while it almost never does to Ben, we had an incident this past trip that makes me think it’s not just a French thing after all, just a rude people thing. This ticket agent actually said, “his accent is so strong, I didn’t really understand.” I wanted to smack her. I mean, who says stuff like that to a client?? Also, she said it to me, not him, which is even ruder. Plus, it was in Las Vegas, where I’m pretty sure they get lots of different kinds of accents . . .

    Ok, mini rant over, haha.

    • Interesting about the woman in the States. J doesn’t speak enough English for his accent to even be the subject of comment. But as a language teacher, it’s nice to dream of a (imaginary) world where everyone is tolerant and understanding of learners.

  8. I am a Texas girl, so in English, I get the “but you sound Texan” comment, and I might say – with the accent “but I caaan”.
    Everywhere I have lived, people comment on accent – in English (my native language), and in every language I attempt to speak – I have been told I have a French accent when I speak German!

    Everyone has an accent.
    I like to remind people that if they went to *insert foreign place here* they would be the one having to explain themselves.

    I am bothered by the stereotypes that go along with what people think it means when I say I’m from Texas, or that I’m American – because really, my origin defines so little of my experience! I find turning the observation to the speaker works wonders – even little kids can become self-reflective when they are reminded that they don’t speak all the languages you do, and can still sometimes make mistakes. (helps that I’m a speech therapist ;o)

    I’d love to have your thoughts on my post: http://joypenard.blogspot.fr/2014/11/the-insult-in-you-speak-so-well.html

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