Competitive Advantage

14 Feb

Something’s been bugging me for a very long time. Well, ever since i’ve been able to speak French. Which lets be honest isn’t actually a very long time.

I have very strong feelings on the matter of cultural identity – that is – of protecting who you are and what makes you different. I feel that it is something i see people losing here.

It’s possible that the tide may be turning, perhaps with a younger, more globally educated generation, however there is a very heavy focus in France, on the idea that one must not only speak English fluently, if to speak at all, but also that one must adopt and ‘accent’ of sorts. The idea being that one does not sound ‘French’ when speaking English.

I don’t know where to begin with how wrong i think this is as a concept. How much harder does learning a language need to be? It’s any wonder people are scared to speak it (when for the most part they speak very well – how many times have you asked the question to get a response of ‘un peu‘ and then you are standing in the shop having a good old chat for an hour) when mastering the language is only half the battle.

I actually thought my housemate’s boyfriend was English for 6 months before realising he was actually French, but had passed 1 month in England when he was 18. I mean come on! Imagine if your sister came back from a month traveling around America and started speaking like she was on the set of Gossip Girl!

I find it just so inherently wrong that the French turn their nose up at the idea of sounding ‘French’. I don’t know whether it is an arrogance born of the fact that another language is not worthy of them using their own accent, or whether it just another horrible side effect of an education system that demands perfection yet never never acknowledges at job well done.

There was an English teacher at the school i worked at previously, who spoke with some sort of weird distorted British, so i made the mistake of asking if she had grown up in Britain – the look of pride on this woman’s face expanded right to the tip of her head and i realised that she had never been, but that it was something she had been cultivating for a very long time. Although of course she told me she had ‘no idea what i was talking about’.

There’s a guy at my current workplace who speaks in a cockney accent that is SO littered with grammatical errors, that it is just completely confusing. And these people are teaching English to the future of France!

The thing is, the French don’t know what they are missing. They have no idea how incredibly charming it is when they speak. I have known women to swoon simply from having been asked directions by a Frenchman in the street (may have been myself, no comment).

I don’t know what the root of the fascination is with deciding on an accent and cultivating it to perfection, but i don’t like it.

I like it even less when the shoe is on the other foot. I am criticised almost daily for my accent not being French enough. I really do understand that the more “French’ i try to sound, the easier it will be to understand me. I get that. But i simply abhor the idea of trying to disguise the fact that i am a foreigner. I am not French!! I am Australian!! And i don’t care who knows! If i speak with a god damn accent it’s because of that!

I don’t seem to have any major problems being understood, unless of course the person i’m talking to has zero interest in understanding me. The novelty of my accent has both baffled (what do you mean you’re not English, what do you mean you’re not American?) and charmed the absolute pants of people, so much so that once on a date with a guy, i could not get a word out of him because every time i said something he just went bright red and kind of giggled and said ‘j’adore votre accent‘ and then giggled some more. God, it was kinda awkward that night in retrospect.

Anyway, my point is, that i feel sad and frustrated when people tell me their pronunciation is terrible when i can understand them perfectly. And i feel sad and frustrated when people tell me i need to work on my accent being more French – when they can understand me perfectly.

We need to retain our sense of who we are, and where we came from, because we all have special quirks and charms. Charms that are going to get lost if we don’t protect them. They are a helpful advantage, not a hinderance. In a world that is getting smaller and smaller, everybody needs to work on their competitive advantage.

Soon we will all be beige AND sound the same.


8 Responses to “Competitive Advantage”

  1. v. February 15, 2011 at 1:03 am #

    You’re working as an English teacher now?! Or just at a school? 🙂

    I have to say, I disagree with you, in part, on this one. I think it’s only natural for ESL students to pick up an accent on certain words, especially if they have studied abroad. If the institution they attend has a decent curriculum they will teach their students the phonetic system in order to help them understand and learn the language properly. The phonetic spelling of a word differs between countries or regions. A country like Australia relies heavily on the schwa sound compared to other national accents. A student who learned English in England would pronounce words as the English would, as opposed to how the French would.

    Cambridge and Trinity qualified ESL teachers are taught to drill their students orally, therefore it only stands to reason that the student will mimic the accent of their teacher/teachers. When the teacher writes the phonetic spelling of a vocabulary item on the board, they write the phonetic spelling of their region – they don’t write the phonetic spelling with the learner’s first language in mind.

    As for people who purposely cultivate an accent, their behaviour is usually indicative of cultural values and their class system…which ironically often says more about national identity than not.

    • Poulette Paris February 16, 2011 at 9:21 pm #

      Yes i may have not made myself as clear as can be, i totally understand the differences that arise from studying etc in other regions. For example, i am sure if someone in the south of France heard me speak French they would immediately tell from my harsh ‘r’ sound that i live in Paris, even though my accent is not ‘French’ As such. What i detest i suppose is the cultivation, that mainly i feel arises from a need for perfection in appearance. Or a lack of tolerance for imperfection even. It’s the mentality behind the accents. But yes it certainly speaks volumes in terms of cultural values. And it is sad that it renders some people charmless.

  2. Ross-Bif February 15, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    I like this one Poulette, you’ve certainly echoed some of my own thoughts, but I also see where “V” is coming from. I think there has to be a happy medium to be honest (how fence-sittingly dull of me!). It is no secret the way a simple “‘allo” can enhance the attractiveness of a French man or woman, and it often pains me to have to correct the pronunication of my students. It was only when I moved to France myself that I realised we Anglophones have the same powers when speaking French to a Francophone audience [1) Who’d have guessed that, and 2) Why wasn’t I aware of this sooner? I’d have moved to France long before!!] It has certainy made my life a little easier over here!

    I at least do my best to try and at least effect a French accent or to pronounce the words as they should be, as I find speaking French in a 100% English accent unbecoming and a little bit silly (“Den-furt Roctcheroo?”)! The fact is, no matter how hard I try to hit those French err’s (The name Aurora gives me particular difficulty), I will always be unmistakably English. The simplest ‘Salut’ is often enough to give me away. But it is then often met with a broad grin and a “Ahh, ‘allo ma frend, Yoo r Ingleesh?”. And I’m ok with that!

    In short, I think we should try to at least say it properly so that we can be understood etc, and then when we inevitably fail to, reap the rewards unashamedly! Variety is the spice after all!

    • Poulette Paris February 16, 2011 at 9:26 pm #

      Ross i completely agree with you. What you said in the second paragraph expresses my opinion perfectly. Of course one must try. That is our obligation living in another country, but to lose the natural charm of our ‘NQR-ness’ (for want of any other word!) is what i find disappointing. And when i hear Australian friends of mine boasting about the fact that they almost completely lost their Australian accent (in English!) …well don’t get me started on that!!!!

      I think you may know who i was talking about re: the accent too…!

  3. Laurent February 16, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    There are some people I know of whom I can even hear from which part in the Netherlands they come when they speak English.

    Personally I don’t agree with you. Not for rational reasons but because for some reason it hurts my ears when I hear a strong foreign accent in a language.

    But that’s only a personal feeling.

    • Poulette Paris February 16, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

      Ah Laurent!! You are such a snob!!

      I love it.

  4. lefrancophoney February 21, 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    The local English school teacher in La Clusaz, before she left and they replaced her with videos of English lessons on the library shelf, taught the kids to sing: “If your appy and you know it clap your ands”. That is all.

  5. Laura February 22, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    This is an inspiring post! I feel a lot of pressure to sound more French, just like you explained, and most of the time I really want to. But my French boyfriend LOVES my American accent and thinks it’s ever so charming. The worst is when people can’t understand me, but I know full well my accent is good enough to be understood (by people who actually listen)! But I think you’re right! I should be proud of my accent, just like I’m proud of where I come from.

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