Pronouncing Your French Word for the Day
Kristin Espinasse, blogger of French-Word-a-Day and author of a number of books* on learning French and living in France, presented herself coyly to a full-house yesterday afternoon upstairs at La Pierre du Marais at Parler Paris Après Midi with one subject on her pale blue crib sheet: accents. Not the kind that sit gingerly over French vowels like the circumflex or the accent “aigu,” but the way we, as non-native-speaking French, might pronounce French words and sound anything but French!
She jokingly, or even apologetically, admitted that after more than 20 years in France, she thinks her accent has actually gotten worse! She told a story about a French therapist who berated her over her American accent to the point of never wanting to return for a session. Everyone had their own stories to tell about their experiences dealing with the pronunciation of French, which is no easy task for a native English-speaker who didn’t learn the language at an early age.
Anne Morton demonstrated a trick she learned from her teacher, “Sandrine de Paris” to help pronounce the guttural French R (known as a rhotic consonant) which could be the toughest sound to make. The trick is to place the back of your hand under your chin, pressing the throat so that when you say “merci” the R makes the guttural sound that the French find so natural. For a time Anne was practicing it a lot and every time she’d utter “merci,” to a waiter or just about to anyone, I’d catch her pressing her throat! I’m sure they didn’t have a clue why!
Kristin asked me to demonstrate my own French accent and in speaking a few words in French, I realized that in fact, it had improved quite a bit and didn’t sound so totally American anymore. But the truth is, there is no way to disguise it, even after 20 years of speaking French. Often, the moment I open my mouth in French, the native speaker to whom I am addressing grins and then they respond in English. Ugh!
It was almost a unanimous vote that speaking French over the phone is the biggest challenge of all. You can’t see the other person’s lips or facial expressions and it’s not unusual for them to speak very quickly making it even more frustrating. Then, because of our terrible accents, they may not understand us either, and this leads to an exasperating experience for both parties.
I have found that if I apologize from the get-go for my “mauvais accent,” the person on the other end of the line will gladly take the reign to help us both through the conversation, perhaps even chuckling a bit along the way, and making me feel so much better for sounding like a cow munching on hay while trying to explain the problem in low-level French.
An interesting note from several of the attendees was the change in personality one undergoes when speaking one language or another. Even the sound of the voice can change and certainly the intonation and mannerisms. Kristin admitted to making the typical French sounds with her mouth that make her come across very French indeed. Have you ever seen the video “How to Fake French?” This is a perfect example!
Early on I discovered that no one would know that my French was so bad if I said “Ah, bon?!” in response to just about anything anyone said, without understanding one word of what they said! Amazingly it works fairly well to cover up a true lack of the language…at least for a while!
To read more about the fun afternoon with blogger and author Kristin Espinasse, visit Parler Paris Après Midi and if you want to practice speaking French with native French-speakers to improve your French and your accent, don’t forget to try out the Parler Parlor French-English Conversation Group. It’s how I learned French and it works!
*Books by Kristin Espinasse (adrianleeds.com/books/):
– First French Essais: Venturing into Writing, Marriage, and France
– Blossoming in Provence
– Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language from the South of France
A la prochaine…
Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, LLC
(With Kristin Espinasse)
P.S. It’s tomorrow! Watch HGTV’s House Hunters International on April 10 at 11:30 p.m. and 2:30 a.m. for “Planning a Future in Paris, France.” Dr. Jayne Lee fell so in love with Paris that she found a job practicing telemedicine — and soon fell in love with Edouard. We search throughout Paris to find an apartment that can serve as an office for Jayne, with room for the newlywed’s future family.
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