Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Catching an accent

Puce is 5 and a half.  There seems to be some confusion between the English "5 and a half", "5 years old" and the French cinq ans - I haven't quite got to the bottom of it, but when I do you'll read it here.  She now speaks confidently in both English and French, proving wrong anyone who thought all the usual things would prevail: confusion/inability to express herself in either language/late language development.  Attention now turns instead to her accent.

Accent is a tricky thing.  We all have an accent in our own language, then there's the accent you have (or don't) when you speak a foreign language.  When I was learning French, the aim was to be able to talk "with an accent", making an effort to mimic the sounds of the language, without going so far as to sound ridiculous.  I managed quite well and was quietly confident about my (French) accent when I began working in France.  So I was really disappointed to be quickly told that I had no accent...where had I gone wrong?  It took a bit of time to understand that the French see things the opposite way around - having no accent means that you don't speak French with an English accent.  So it was actually a compliment - but not the first or last time that I missed the compliment.

I don't have much of an accent in my own language, although I spent most of my life in Scotland where accents are distinctive.  I was therefore keen to see how Puce's language would develop, especially when we lived in France. Without realising it, I was working on the assumption that Puce would "catch" the accent that she heard the most - presumably mine, in English, because that's what she heard daily.  To my dismay, as her words became sentences, it rapidly became clear that Puce had picked up Charlie & Lola's accent; other parents in a similar language configuration confirmed that regardless of their own regional accent, their children had started to talk like Charlie & Lola, especially when saying "No" (such an essential part of the toddlescent vocab), and it began to sound more like "noooow".  I remember sometimes being taken aback when Puce would produce a word from what sounded like a different dialect in English, so far was it removed from my own accent.

On top of all this, there's the subjective element of how other people hear accents.  Friends and family on both sides of the Channel have always been keen to point out how endearing Puce's "petit accent" (ie, English twang) is in French or "her darling French accent" in English, which can be quite irritating as it undermines the hard work that's gone into getting this far.  I always maintained that Puce did not have a French accent when speaking English (which I still stand by), nor an English accent in French.

Monsieur R filmed Puce giving detailed instructions about making soup when she was 2, involving liberal use of potato and carrot peelings marinated with parsley stalks.  I was initially against getting a camera, I hated the idea of becoming a parent who watched their children through a lens.  But now I can admit that it's great to have these visual reminders of years that passed in the blink of an eye.  It's also the equivalent of having an eye witness and I have to admit, watching recently, Puce did have an interesting accent - not distinctly anything, but with a twang of something else.  But the benchmark for both me and Puce is Jane Birkin in French and Allo Allo's Rene in English; as long as we don't sound like them, we're doing OK.

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