Friday, 25 April 2014

What we think we hear

I've already written about accents, but a recent experience with Puce has got me thinking even more about accents, what we hear and what we understand as speakers of other languages.

Puce is now 7 and nearing the end of CP (first year of primary education) here in Lyon.  Although her English is firmly in place after spending two years in Scotland, I still battle to ensure that it doesn't sink into the background, overwhelmed by the majority language.  This requires the sort of mental gymnastics that I have got used to over the last seven years, so I don't really think about it anymore.  In some respects it can be harder - we live in France, she's attending a French school, so I'm being even more careful about not letting French words slip into our sentences when we're talking about her day.  That sometimes means that I have to go off and look up words to find out what the English equivalent is, but I consider that just goes to show that we don't all know all the words (another issue that bilingual children have to confront).

All this inevitably means that I end up talking about her day with my own accent and  I pronounce names as I would in English.  So I was amused to hear that Puce makes her school mates laugh by pronouncing their names with an English accent.  She then went on to demonstrate that she can say things in French but with an English accent, which amazed me; I didn't realise that she could actually talk in one language but mimic the accent of her other language.  Strangely, speaking English with a French accent is harder and she can't quite get the handle on that.  I'm sure a few episodes of Allo Allo would help her along.

This was a hilarious exercise - something that Puce can adopt for fun.  It reminded me of hearing her and her playmates in Scotland, aged 5, adopting an American accent when playing the kind of complex games 5 year olds come up with.  An American accent was already the signature for mystery, intrigue and action - despite not having that much exposure to it (we were still at the Cbeebies and Disney cartoons stage).  I don't know if French children use this sort of linguistic device in their games - do they switch to a Canadian accent and start speaking like Céline Dion?  We have such a range of accents to choose from in English - from the UK regional accents through to Australian, South African, all the Americans variations, to name but a few... Mr R can't hear different English accents in films, so Ewan McGregor's American or English accent rather than his own Scottish accent will go un-noticed, so too will any plot clues that might go with a subtle use of accent.  Although I can't say where they're from, I can recognise some French accents, generally because I don't understand what their owners are saying - like this year's winner of Top Chef, Pierre Augé.  He was often subtitled though, so I get the impression I wasn't the only one struggling to keep up...

In France, English-speaking films are usually dubbed (although TV's can now offer a choice of dubbed or VOST - subtitled original language - on some films).  Well-known actors usually have an official "voice", so they are always dubbed by the same person.  It can be quite strange when you see an actor who has a very distinctive voice in English being dubbed with a voice that's quite different.  In a previous life, I worked in video games; the day we received the first version of a game in development with the French voices added, my colleagues were impressed to hear that it was Bruce Willis.  Which it obviously wasn't because, as I reminded them, Bruce Willis speaks English.  That's when I found out that if Bruce Willis' French voice dubs something else, well, for a French-speaker, it is Bruce Willis.

But what about cartoons?  The Disney/Pixar cartoons are created in English, so I really prefer to see the original version.  The first time we took Puce to the cinema here to see a film on the "big screen", I really wanted to see it in English, partly because some of the humour gets lost in translation (the donkey jokes in Shrek, or anything written, like the out-takes of Toy Story).  My disappointment in realising that cartoon films are only shown in French in the cinemas left Mr R bewildered as to what the problem was.

"But I don't want to see a dubbed version!" I protested, not far off stamping my foot.

It was only when Mr R gently reminded me that actually, cartoon characters are just drawings, so, really, they're all dubbed.  It's good to have a little reality check, every now and again.

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