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'The French shouldn't be embarrassed by accents'

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'The French shouldn't be embarrassed by accents'
French should stop being embarrassed by their English accent. Photo: Shutterstock
12:34 CEST+02:00
Ever thought the French are needlessly embarrassed by their accent when speaking English? French student Lea Surugue looks at why the accent has become such an obsession for her fellow learners of English and why it's time they stopped worrying.

Embarrassed, shy and ridiculous. That's how we French generally feel about our accent when we speak English. But we shouldn't. We need to listen more to Anglos, who often say they find the French accent cute, elegant and even sexy.

That's a view shared by Adeline Prevost, from the European language academy Education First, who tells The Local, that everywhere the French go, people crave the French accent, describing it as "charming". She is not the first to say this. In fact these same words have probably been uttered by every expat who has ever taught English in France.

But despite these reminders it doesn't seem to boost the confidence of France's English speakers. According to a study conducted by Eurostat in 2013, France is the second least confident nation in the European Union when it comes to speaking the language of Shakespeare.

That's perhaps not so surprising, given they are also the European nation with the worst level of competence in English, at least that's according to an Education First Study.

So what's to blame for our fear? Why can't we stop ourselves from feeling embarrassed?

It's true, the way the French accent is mocked in some movies and series, like the British sitcom 'Allo 'Allo for example, and sometimes in the media, may discourage learners from speaking English.

Take French actress Isabelle Huppert, who performed on a New York stage with Australian actress Cate Blanchett, and was criticized by big American newspapers, like the New York Times, for her English accent.

Those kind of critical remarks, even if fair, are only likely to strike more fear into the brains of French students of English.

Old-fashioned and illogical learning methods

The blame can also be laid on the methodology used by language teachers in French state schools. French people are not used to speaking out in another language. The education system puts the emphasis on written and grammar skills rather than speaking.

Improving the pupil's accents comes bottom in the list of teachers' priorities. And more often than not, teachers themselves are not native speakers, and have imperfect accents, which does not help students feeling confident about their own.

A nation which hates feeling ridiculed

Generally, students are also less encouraged to participate in class than their European counterparts. Raising our hands and offering to answer a teacher's question does not come natural to us. The fear of being ridiculed, of making a mistake, and being told off by the teacher is rooted in the psyche of most young French people. So just imagine how it feels when we have to do it in English.

Yes, it sounds silly, but we French have trouble dealing with showing weakness and with being ashamed.

"The French students are generally quite shy when it comes to speaking. It's possible that they are more ashamed, because they are a proud people. They are afraid to make mistakes. That's why we try to have a very interactive approach, with games, using iPads and proposing a lot of speaking activities, to put everyone at ease, and to overcome this fear," says Prevost.

Being mocked for having a strong accent in English is a fear most teenagers cannot shake off in their language classes and that doesn't disappear into adulthood. The pressure to do well, to make no mistakes is very important in the French system so some students would rather say nothing and not practice their accent.

The French obsession with their ability to speak English and in particular their accent can be seen every time one of their presidents attempts to utter the language of Shakespeare.

François Hollande's short speech in English on a trip to India last year made the headlines in most newspapers in France

And ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy was the subject of some ridicule. See why in the video below. Maybe sometimes the mocking is justified!?

But maybe it's not all about fear.

Need to travel

Prevost says one thing the French could do is travel to Anglo countries.

"Travelling is so important. If a French person goes abroad, he or she will improve quickly and won't feel so embarrassed by their accent. They won't be in class, ridiculed by other French students, but alone in a foreign country, with the impossibility to avoid speaking to natives," she said.

The French culture of protectionism

The exposure of young French minds to English movies and series is minimal, especially compared to our European neighbours to the north.

Most of the films and series that hit cinemas and televisions are dubbed. Since, listening to English is the key to mastering the accent, no wonder then that the French are having trouble to speak the Queen's English.

'Bitch or beech'

For linguist and phonetic teacher at the University of Aix-Marseille, Sophie Herment, the problem is that French have trouble mastering the different ways in English to say a same sound.

"Because French and English are close enough, the French student tends to apply their own phonetic and linguistic layer. When you learn a language with the same alphabet, it's difficult not to apply what you already know," said Herment.

She points to the examples of the words "seat", when the French say it, they often end up saying "sit". These mistakes may happen with more "problematic" words ("beach" and "bitch", "sheet" and "shit" for example). That could be pretty embarrassing for us French, no?

But in the end we have to understand than when speaking English having a bad accent, or just a strong French accent is not the end of the world, as Prevost points out.

"Someone can be completely fluent and still have an accent, it won't make him less bilingual. Besides there are as many accents as there are Anglophone countries, and not one more correct than the other," she said.

by Lea Surugue

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