Speaking French – How important is accent?

My friend Véronique, a teacher of French, was telling me about a guest she had seen on a television program when she made the following comment that caught my attention:

Elle parlait un excellent français avec son joli petit accent anglais.

This got me thinking about something that had been on my mind for quite a while. In my opinion, this statement pretty much summarizes all there is to say about the importance of having a foreign accent when speaking French. The way I interpreted this is that having a foreign accent is not such a bad thing, In fact, in this blog post I want to argue that a little accent is actually a good thing when combined with real mastery of the language.

First, let’s get a couple of issues out the way. I’ll skip the technical details of what constitutes an accent. Although we all have an accent of some sort even in our native language, what I’m talking about here is the influence of our native language when we speak French.

When learning a language we all want to speak it perfectly. We are totally impressed by those people who can seamlessly go from one language to the other and sound like native speakers in each language. How did they do it? The answer is simple: they started young.

Put another way, if you start learning French as an adult, especially in a non-immersive environment, your chances of acquiring anything resembling a native-like accent in French are extremely slim. I won’t say it’s impossible; I’ll just say I’ve never seen it. The cards are stacked against you. Unless you work extensively with a voice or accent coach, you will always have some kind of foreign accent in your French.

What is “un excellent français”?

When my friend spoke of “un excellent français” this is what I think she meant:

1. Very few grammar mistakes
2. Any mistakes are spontaneously corrected
3. Instant comprehension of the other speaker
4. Good speaking fluency
5. Accurate vocabulary
6. Good control of idiomatic expressions

I won’t discuss any of these points except to say that it all boils down to ease of speaking accurately. As I emphasize all the time in this blog, good spoken French does not mean perfect textbook French. Quite the contrary, as I show in the transcriptions of the real-life examples, spontaneous spoken language is full of all kinds of little mistakes and things we call disfluencies. Native speakers know how to navigate around these things, making corrections where necessary.

This is not to be confused with the typical problems of the learner who cannot correct their glaring mistakes and who often gets stuck searching for the right word.

Again, without getting into technical details, here are a couple of points that should be truly mastered because they tend to be dead giveaways of imperfect French.

Grammatical gender is probably the biggest problem of English-speakers in French. The distinction between le and la nouns and all the ensuing complications is so important in French that this is something that has to be totally mastered. I’ve even written a blog post on how to elegantly navigate around gender when you’re not sure if a word is masculine or feminine.

A second major difficulty for English speakers is French verb conjugations. In passing, I should emphasize that the Tu / Vous distinction is paramount. If you have any doubts about this, stick with Vous. What you don’t want to do is mix them up.

The problem of French verbs is of course the many forms that they can take. Looking at conjugation tables can be rather intimidating. It’s not as bad as it looks. I have pointed out in another blog post that in spoken French only a small number of verbs and forms are actually used. For example, we know that the third person verb form On usually replaces Nous. So you don’t have to really concentrate on learning the conjugations with Nous. In fact, On can replace nearly all the other pronouns but you really have to know how to play with it.

The French subjunctive verb form is notoriously tricky to master. However it can be avoided most of the time by good use of infinitive.

But since mistakes are inevitable, it is very important to know how to recognize and correct them spontaneously in the appropriate manner.

What is a “un joli petit accent”?

Having accepted the fact that we will never sound like a native, how important is this question of accent? Obviously, it’s very important in terms of intelligibility.

The problem with a strong or heavy accent is that people simply can’t make out what you are trying to say. This is frustrating for everybody. The listener has this quizzical look on their face. The speaker realizes something is wrong but doesn’t know how to correct it. In most situations, everybody then switches to English or some other common language because it is so much easier. Learners complain all the time that when they try to speak French, people answer them in English.

Although most observers speak of accent reduction, I prefer the term accent acquisition. It may be splitting hairs, but I tell my students that what we want to do is analyze and internalize the rules of French pronunciation and not worry so much about the influence of English.

The goal is to develop a clearly intelligible manner of speaking that is easily understood by native speakers and not necessarily to sound like a native. This is the “joli petit accent”.

Developing a good accent

In my Accent and Fluency workshops, we work at various levels of speech articulation. It can be the basic level of isolated sounds, especially the difficult sounds like the French vowel u and the consonant r. Making the contrast between la queue, le cul and le cou is difficult. For many people dépouille is pronounced like depuis. Here are two of my favourite tongue-twisters that highlight that notoriously difficult –u sound:

1. La mule a bu tant qu’elle a pu.
2. Donnez-lui à minuit huit fruits cuits, et si ces huit fruits cuits lui nuisent, donnez-lui à midi huit fruits crus.

I tend to emphasize the importance of developing fluency at the sentence level because this is where listeners perceive meaning. For example, in a recent workshop we spent 20 minutes on the following sentence:

Le gouvernement s’est engagé à accueillir 10 000 immigrants.

Phonetically, there’s a lot going on here. For many people the word gouvernement was challenging. Of course it looks just like the English word government but that’s the problem. They look alike but they sound very different. The sequence à accueillir was also particularly difficult. Then we put it all together and concentrate on making the whole thing fluent with the correct speed, rhythm and intonation. It’s not easy.

For this sort of stuff, the help of a tutor is essential. You simply can’t do this by yourself.

The goal here is to be clearly intelligible. I tell students that accent tends to take care of itself if one is continuously exposed to the language. It does get better with time, but it is also true that at a certain point, the accent becomes fossilized and often ceases to change.

A compelling combination: a little accent and great grammar

What my friend Véronique really meant by “un joli petit accent” is that a little accent is actually quite cute in conjunction with good mastery of the language or “un excellent français”. I truly believe that most native speakers actually like to hear a bit of an accent. It seems to add a je-ne-sais-quoi of charming exotica to one’s speech. For example, many speakers of English think that a French accent in English is very sexy. I don’t doubt that many speakers of French actually like the a little English accent in French.

My take on this whole thing is as follows. The accent is charming and delightful only if everything else is great. It provides contrast. It tells the listener that the speaker is not a native and this serves to highlight the other linguistic achievements. If you sounded like a native speaker, there would be nothing impressive for the listener. But a non-native speaking “un excellent français” is very striking.

I am not saying that one should stop working on pronunciation. There are undoubtedly all sorts of things that can be improved in one’s speech. What I am saying is that beyond a certain point and unless you have a specific reason for wanting to sound like a native, your time will be better utilized improving your grammar and vocabulary rather than working on your diction.

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