Sunday, July 12, 2015

Burgers and white wine

J'adore votre accent.

I get it all the time.  I can't help but cringe, though I try not to do so openly.  Yes, I'm obviously American and no, after twelve years in France it is pretty clear my accent is not going away.  I think the American accent in French is grating and inelegant, and I can hardly stand hearing my own voice on my voice mail recording.  I've been told my accent is less American more generic English-speaking, and that makes feel a bit better, since to my ear a pure American accent in French sounds particularly flat, nasal, and loud.  But my u can be a little bit ou, I have a terrible time distinguishing an e from an é and an é from an è, and I'm still not entirely sure what I do wrong with r.  Beyond the phonetics, there's the pace and the flow: though I speak fluently, I bounce over words which should be even, draw out syllables which should be clipped, and generally speak the way a Citroën 2CV drives through a freshly plowed field: neither smooth nor direct, but I get there.  This though I'm proud to speak with true fluency, both linguistic and cultural.  I can make jokes, and savant allusions to Molière and Les tontons flingueurs and actually get laughs.

When I'm told my accent is adorable, I usually wrinkle my nose and reply, "That's kind, but I prefer the French accent in English."  At which point the other person invariably wrinkles their nose and says, "Ah non." They usually add, "De toute façon, the French are terrible at English."

"Mais non, mais non," I protest. I come from a country where, in my generation at least, the vast majority never learned a foreign language in any durable fashion.  We all took French, Spanish, or less commonly Japanese or German starting in middle school.  Many of us got straight As, as I did.  Most of us dropped the language (in my case, Spanish) as quickly as our language requirement in college was met and we never seriously looked back.  Sure, I've had vague regrets about it every since: if I'd had half the guts in college that I have now, I would have studied abroad in Spain.  But the choice to give up never impacted me much.

In much of the rest of the world and certainly all of Europe, the linguistic stakes are much higher.  Being comfortable in English is often the difference between a promotion or professional stagnation, or the deciding factor in landing a job in the first place.  I observe this to be as true in the service sector as it is in the professional sector. Rare is the job nowadays, at least in Paris and other major cities, where you never greet a foreign tourist or address an international colleague in English.

The irony is that while the French are forgiving and indulgent with foreigners like me who muddle through their language with odd accents and vocabulary errors, they are ruthless critics of their own ability in English.  I've always assumed that this was because the French method of teaching English valued perfection over real-life proficiency.  Many French people I've met are just like my boss, who is timid and almost paralyzed when he speaks English despite being passably good at it.

I've recently been contacted by a couple of bosses in other groups at my company for a potential internal transfer.  I'm at a point in my career where I'm thinking toward the future, open to making a change, and making this fact known.  Yet neither of the contacts were for positions which were a natural fit for me, and I was a confused at first.

"They just want you because you speak English," was my boss' unflattering assessment. 

Though I knew that he was simplifying things -- and trying to convince me to stay put, somewhat out of self-interest I assume, since he knows I'm good at what I do -- I had to admit he wasn't entirely wrong.  That's just the way the world works now.

"...and then," he went on, "The French are so poor at English that even in our commercials we can't get it right.  Think of Renault and their slogan, 'La French Touch.' Badly pronounced, ridiculous!  We could make an effort..."

"It doesn't bother me."  I insisted.

That's when I realized something: not only did it not bother me, it made me cheer.

For better or for worse, English is the standard of international communication and isn't going away.  We have no choice, and it can be lived as a form of submission. I try not to let my bilingualism lead to laziness and imagined superiority: I try not to place English words in my French and assume everyone can and should understand.  What counts, I realized, is owning both languages wholly as my own.

"What if it were yours?" I asked my boss.  "What if English, now that it is the language of international communication, no longer belongs to just the English and the Americans, but to everyone?  What if you owned it, too?"

By owning it, you see, there is no longer a native-speaker ideal to which the rest of the world cannot aspire, but a rich palette of experiences though a shared global vocabulary. No accent is the "right" accent, and English is a tool for everyone, a catalyst for exchange.  I thought it was a brilliant idea.  My boss apparently didn't understand what I was saying (despite my limpidly expressed thoughts in his native language. Go figure).  

Later that day, I told the story to my husband, and he did understand.  As we walked to a restaurant for dinner on the other side of town, we passed a neighborhood bistro which is typically French in all respects except for its burger menu.  It was a warm summer evening and the sidewalk tables were full.  We passed an older couple just digging into their burgers, dismantling them delicately in the French manner, with a knife and a fork in each hand.  

"Look," I whispered as we passed.  "They're eating burgers, with utensils!  And they've each got a glass of white wine.  I love it.  That's what I meant... with English.  Eat the burger... but on your own terms." 


Ann Wyse said...

I had a trilingual friend from India, who always considered herself a native English speaker along with Hindi and Tamil, and she always made this point as well. I think you are (both) right. English is not owned by one - or even two or three countries.

Cloud said...

I'm always so happy when I see a new post from you in my reader! Just thought I'd tell you that. This one is great, as always.

ruthkidd said...

So, on my trip to France this September, I should be daring and go ahead and use my horrible French? I've been studying for the past year, but it is hard, hard, hard for me! I know that I've got to be hurting a French person's ears and I don't want to do that! The best is when I find someone whose English is as bad as my French and we can practice together, but that is hard to do! I live in the PNW, so you know how little French there is around here. I've always heard that French people are afraid to sound bad in English, but they usually speak it so very well!