As my second column , I wanted to explore the abyss of linguistics: the French accent, so recognizable and typical that it became a concept. What about Spanish and their – cute – “I’m yokin’”? Or Italian people and their word-without-end-pronunciation, “tell me about your stoooooory” ? Then, why are French people more pointed at?
“This sirt is tiny.”
Let’s analyse first the purely linguistic aspect of the problem, before raising the issue of habits and culture. Generally speaking, as it exists different alphabets, people are more likely to pronounce the language they learn in the way they would pronounce it in their own language.
Let’s take the example “This shirt is shiny”. The “sh”, (ʃ) in linguistics, will be hard to pronounce for Greek and Chinese people. It doesn’t exist in their language, therefore they will turn the sentence into « This sirt is siny ». Moreover, French and Russian have in common not to have the “ð”, pronounced “th” in English. Thus, they will say “Zis is ze best” instead of “This is the best”. Another very famous French struggle is the hard “h” sound. In our language, the “h” is muted. Try to say “Haricot”. No, you’re supposed to pronounce it “Aricot”. Hence the habit of French to express their anger instead of their hunger, what can be confusing sometimes, although both are often linked. These little examples emphasise the difficulty of all languages to pronounce any word if they do not belong to the same language family.
Mimicking the linguistic and the phonetic of French
Thus, Mathilde, a French student studying English linguistics, explains why French natives would be more able to mimic French linguistically and phonetically when speaking English: “Some of the major linguistic differences are the fact that each English words are stressed, when French is only stressed at the end of a sentence. Some vowels and consonants are simply non-existent in French, such as the diphthong, or pronounced differently, using a different position of the tongue in the mouth.”
But why is the French accent still so stigmatised ?
Like many French people, I strongly believe that the problem of the French accent – and our struggle to speak English in general – come from a default in our education system. Indeed, as Mathilde highlights it, French pupils begin studying English around 8. I can sum up my English lessons in school like this: the teacher had spent half of the year trying to find an English name for each pupil – I was supposed to be called Rebecca. When she realised that she struggled to much to remember two names for each people – at the end of the year, so – we finally kept our normal names and used the last lesson to present ourselves. Thus, Inaz, a Norwegian student in English linguistics, remembers that when she was a kid, she kept speaking to herself in English, “just because I found it fascinating.” How can French people like English if there are not used to train at school?
Besides, another problem that explains the difficulty of French people to get rid of their accent is the French movie release. Indeed, almost movies in foreign languages are dubbed. It is quite rare to watch an original version movie, while it’s very common in other European countries like Norway. But things are improving: in Paris, since several years, almost all movies are subtitled in their original language.
Here is my attempt to explain the origin of the French accent and our struggle to speak a proper English. But do we have to apologise for doing so? This is our national charm.