This post marks the first in a series I will be doing on the subject of languages. Excited? You should be…
I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much of my time talking about accents before coming here. Not even when I moved up norrf to live in Yorkshire for a year, and everyone told me I had an “accent”. Of course accent’s a big thing here, with all these languages being bandied about. I am used to being understood by pretty much everyone back home, because I have probably the most neutral kind of accent it is possible to have in the south of England. It is very “London”, but everyone can understand that thanks to the BBC. Not so here. American accents are actually more easily understood by non-native English speakers, due to greater exposure to American media. There I was, on my little British isle, thinking nobody spoke clearer than I…
It is fascinating (and often amusing) to see how all these different twangs come together to communicate (or not). I admit to having a giggle the other evening in the kitchen, listening to a Korean girl and a French guy attempting to communicate in English, which neither spoke perfectly, and with vastly different accents. I had to step in as interpreter to break up the blank stares that were being exchanged.
I cannot hear a huge difference in accent between the French speakers from France and Swiss French speakers, but there is a noticeable difference in speed. Well, there’s a Parisien next door to me, and they are notorious for speaking like they’re on speed, while the Swiss are famous for their long, drawn-out vowels.
Accent can become a rather touchy matter, or one of dispute. My friend from South Africa claims to have a neutral accent, but it sounds pretty American to me (she’s going to kill me when she reads this), whereas in America she was told she sounded British (hm, no!). Some people tell me I speak queen’s English (ha!) while others tell me I sound Chinese(!) I admit to being in turn baffled and stunned at the more outlandish claims.
Refining my accent in French obsesses me. I know more than anyone the kind of impact the way you speak can have on the way you are perceived. Pronunciation is something often taken for granted in one’s mother tongue, but throw a load of foreigners together and you start to realise how nonsensical and awkward languages can be. Trying to teach my Italian friend the difference in pronunciation between “ball” and “bowl” continues to be a source of amusement and confusion to this day (it’s easier in an American accent).
Often my French-speaking chums need to pause and reflect for a while when I ask them to explain something in their language; usually there is no logical explanation. That is the beauty and the curse of French; highly irregular, tremendously difficult to pronounce and yet oh so pretty when spoken correctly. Au contraire to finding a language beautiful simply because it is incomprehensible and makes for a sequence of melodic sounds, I find my appreciation of the French language increasing the more I understand of it. It is the prospect of one day being able to produce such divine intonations myself, of wrapping my tongue around the language of romance, that keeps me going, and allows me to repeatedly make a fool of myself as I stammer and garble my way through broken sentences. One day, la langue de Molière and me, we’re gonna get along just fine.