Flipping the Switch: 3 Tips for Improving Your French Accent
The French are notorious for rebuffing new French learners.
You start speaking their language, and they respond to you in English.
I call this phenomenon the Switch.
Even Mark Twain experienced the Switch.
After traveling abroad, he brilliantly summarized his linguistic frustrations — ones any French learner has felt before.
He wrote, “in Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
If you’ve ever traveled to a French speaking region, you’ve very likely had a similar experience.
Why Is Improving Your French Accent So Important?
You studied all of your vocabulary, your verb conjugations are flawless and prepositions don’t scare you in the least.
Yet after you order your café allongé in French, the server responds in his version of English.
“Quoi? Eez eet zat you will likes un coffee?”
No matter how perfect your French may be grammatically, even the slightest foreign accent will give you away.
And chances are good that your new francophone friend will revert to English.
This is especially true on the first encounter.
I cannot express with words, in any language, how discouraging it feels to experience the Switch. All those flashcards, all that memorizing, all those French films…all of it was seemingly for naught when the conversation turns to English.
But fret not, dear reader, for you are not alone!
After years of internal frustrations, I’ve learned three major rules for accent accidents (or accentidents if I may coin another term) which allow me to regain my confidence and press onward in French.
Flipping the Switch: 3 Tips for Improving Your French Accent
1. Remember that misunderstandings are not personal.
Some people struggle with this concept more than others, but it was certainly an issue for me.
Whenever a francophone gives me the Switch (and yes, after years this still happens), I find myself feeling an inexplicable mixture of embarrassment and anger.
I know that a confused, furrowed brow isn’t meant as an insult, so why do I take the misunderstanding personally?
Usually, the answer is nothing other than pride.
When a conversation starts in French but quickly shifts to English, language learners tend to think that’s due to their personal failure to speak French correctly. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I’ve learned that, more often than not, my accent had less to do with me being understood and more to do with francophones hoping to test their own English.
After hearing me struggle with my “rrrr” sound, some of my new French acquaintances saw before them a great opportunity to practice their English skills.
You know that excited thrill you get when interacting in French? It’s the same thrill that many francophones get when speaking in English. Remember that they want to practice their second language just as much as you want to practice yours; after all, it’s fun to hold a conversation in a foreign language!
That being said, this doesn’t mean that your accent should mark you as a free English instructor every time you enter a café.
The best way to handle the situation is to politely tell your new friend that you’d like to improve your French and hope that they’re willing to help. I’ve found that 90% of the time (sadly, 10% can be quite stubborn) people are more than happy to continue the conversation in French.
Note: The request to speak in French should be made “politely.” I’m sad that I have to clarify this, but you’d be amazed at how many anglophones I’ve heard say in anger, “euhhh…je parle français, donc on va parler français!” (I speak French, so we’re going to speak French!)
This is a great way to ensure that nobody speaks to you in French or in English!
2. Don’t apologize.
We’ve established that language confusion is rarely personal and that people often change to English to practice their own second language skills.
Sometimes, however, you’ll find that you’ve mispronounced a word or have trouble with certain vowels.
This happens to everyone.
It’s just one of those unappealing requirements of progressing in any language.
And yet, for one reason or another, we’re often overly embarrassed by these blunders and feel the need to apologize.
When I first arrived in Paris, I was constantly excusing myself if I was misunderstood. This is a terrible trap to fall into, so beware.
I got so used to apologizing after speaking in French that I began to apologize before I’d even begun! I entered every new conversation with, “pardon mon accent, mais…” This was, obviously, as detrimental to my progress as it was unnecessary.
It’s important to keep in mind that if you mispronounce a word or have a thick accent from your native language, you’ve done nothing wrong. In fact, all you’ve done is you’ve made an effort to speak with someone else in foreign language. Simply attempting this takes a lot of courage and, if for no other reason, you should be very proud of yourself for that and that alone.
Please keep in mind, however, that this is a general rule and there are occasions when apologies are necessary.
Want an example?
When I was beginning my French studies in Québec, I was overwhelmed by encountering new words and mispronouncing things on a daily basis. One new piece of vocabulary that I’d learned was poutine, a Canadian dish consisting of fries, gravy and a special type of cheese. My fiancée and I decided to try a homemade recipe, so I went to the store to acquire all the necessary ingredients. When I couldn’t find the cheese, I asked one of the clerks (a very sweet elderly woman), “excusez-moi, avez-vous le fromage pour la putain?”
I’ll let you research the difference between poutine and putain on your own time, but rest assured that this accent-related mistake required an apology.
3. Listen to other people’s accents.
If you take nothing else away from this article, please remember this: everyone has an accent.
I cannot stress this enough.
There are even varying accents in the same language.
I’ll never forget when I was teaching English to a small group of francophones. We were working on a simple activity to build vocabulary and one woman kept giving me the “what in the world are you saying?” look. Finally, I stopped to ask her if I was speaking too fast or if she had a question about the material. She responded, “No, you are not speaking too fast, but your accent is too strong for me to understand.”
I should clarify that I was lecturing in English! Born and raised in Northern California, I’d never even considered that I had an accent in my own language!
I was literally speechless (which is a terrible thing to be for a language teacher), not to mention utterly confused. When I found the words, I asked, “my accent?” And she confirmed, “yes, your English accent is very strong. My family in Florida is much easier to understand.”
That was the first time that I truly realized that everyone has an accent.
If you need further proof, the people in the south of France are notoriously known for mocking the accent of their northern counterparts (which, by the way, is the basis for the hilarious film “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis”). So the next time you’re feeling self-conscious about having a slight foreign accent, just remember that everyone else has an accent too!
I’d like to finish this blog by reminding my readers that I’m in no way suggesting your pronunciation exercises are useless.
KEEP DOING THEM!
Correct pronunciation and smoothing out strong accents is a pivotal component to learning a new language.
The objective of this article is to help you understand that minor pronunciation mishaps or thick accents are nothing to be afraid of in the process of progressing your French abilities.
When we make these accentidents (I have a bet with my fiancée that this word will catch on) we should simply laugh, not blush. What’s most important is that we keep pushing forward. Just remember, no matter how you pronounce (or mispronounce) a word, at least you’ve never asked a sweet old lady for fromage pour la putain!