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?