Do you really need to be so young to sound good in French?
Last month’s Connexion featured an article about children brought up bilingually, presumably in the United States, as that was where the research had been done. The researchers were astonished to find that children brought up that way could switch between sound systems according to the language being spoken, and recognise the language from the way the words sounded etc. I guess this must come as a shock to the citizens of a country that is so isolated in the world as the USA, and who, perhaps a bit like the French, are generally unable to speak any other language without the American drawl (or the French accent we all know so well) making their origin immediately so obvious.
Anyone who has children at school here knows that their offspring become pretty fluent in the French language pretty soon after they start in. Not only can they get their needs met and talk volubly to their fellow classmates, but they also acquire that wonderful tight-mouthed accent. And that for most youngsters this is true whatever age they are making the change – even adolescents coming to French only in their teens can pull it off. So where does this fluency come from? And how are they able to switch back to speaking quite ordinary English to their parents and English friends without tripping up?
Well for the youngsters at school, there are lots of plusses. Firstly, all the instruction and the activity takes place in French. Then, to have any kind of social life, they are going to have to speak to their French mates in French, and they’ve got to sound good or they’ll be ribbed, so they just get on with it. So a lot is about immersion in the language, and the sanction of teasing if they don’t make their French sound authentic. And then children are less inhibited than their parents. Think back to you childhood and how mercilessly teachers and other adults with speech impediments were mimicked. I can remember a French teacher whose nickname was wazzy, because he always used to say “you wazz” instead of “you were”.
For most adults out here, those plusses are all reversed. French people may correct our errors occasionally, but for the most part they are too polite to mock or perhaps too thrilled that we are making the effort to discourage us by being unkind about how we sound. The tolerance of the French of our dreadful accent is compounded by the fact that it is perfectly possible to live on a day to day basis in France without hardly speaking any French at all. Provided things don’t go wrong, you can live in a circle of English-speaking friends, shop at the supermarket, order things you can’t find there from UK supermarkets over the internet, and have them delivered almost to your door and all for what amounts to a fairly modest premium, especially when you see what you have to pay for these things when you do find them here.
So what can us oldies do to overcome this hurdle? Well, one thing, maybe the most important, is to go out there and join clubs and groups and immerse yourself in activities where there are French people. If you always greet people you meet there, they will in time warm towards you and you will be chattering away because you have to. Make sure you greet people convincingly when you go to the bakers etc. Wave to people you vaguely know when you drive past them in your car. There is no exchange of language here, but they will come to “know” you and talking to them later will be much easier. I used to do this to someone who I knew really disliked me on sight, and eventually we became …. well, we ended up talking to each other in a civilised way! It can be Randonnée clubs, communal meals, old folks’ clubs if you’re over 50, playing belote or French Scrabble etc. Secondly, if you are having French lessons, take them seriously, not as a social get-together that some of them seem to be. Thirdly, make a real effort to imitate the French accent – remember Allo Allo! – even trying to speak English with a silly French accent all helps. What sounds odd in English sounds odd in French the other way round. Raise your voice a little, sing a bit, distort your mouth to make those French noises, don’t hold your nose, but pinch the outside part of your lips so you have to speak through the middle of your mouth. Again doing this when you speak English will force you to form your vowels more precisely, and it is this precision in French, the even patter of syllables and that foghorn euh…….. when they are thinking, that are the authentic hallmarks of French like what it is spoke.