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My French is OK – as long as you don’t talk to me.

July 21, 2013

The other day I wrote a post in which I suggested that learners who become proficient in a language may choose, consciously or not, to retain features of pronunciation that make it clear to listeners that they are not native speakers. The reason I gave for this was that the way they speak impacts heavily on the way they are perceived and, while they may be proficient enough in the language to sound like native speakers, doing this would mean an important part of their identity would be lost. I suggested that these learners might prefer to be perceived as members of a different community, or culture, or language group, because this is a large part of who they are.

Of course, I know there are a large number of language learners who don’t want to speak with a “foreign” accent, and there seems to be an increasing demand for “accent neutralization” in language teaching. This addresses the needs of learners who want, for one reason or another, to hide their non-nativeness.

I think this is a shame though. How you speak has a big impact on how you are perceived, and surely it’s important (or should be important) for many language learners to be perceived as non-native users of the language. With this in mind, I’ve discovered through my own experience another reason why language learners might want to do this, though it’s nothing like as worthy as the desire to retain national or cultural identity.

I used to speak French pretty well. I had a wide enough vocabulary to talk freely on more or less any subject and, while I still struggled a bit with some sounds and occasionally stressed syllables when I shouldn’t, my pronunciation was decent. I was also reasonably accurate grammatically, and I had a lot of little fillers that made my speech sound very natural. I was never really able to pass myself off as a native speaker, but I could hold my own in a conversation with a group of French people and they didn’t have to grade their language down for me in any way.

However, that was 20 years ago. These days I only ever use French when I’m on holiday in France, which is for a couple of weeks a year at the most. Over the years my French has understandably deteriorated, and in a way that makes me really insecure when I use it. I’m a lot less fluent than I used to be, and I make really basic grammatical errors like getting the genders of nouns wrong. Not using the language very often also means that the vocabulary I once had easy access to just isn’t there any more. But the biggest problem is my listening – I have real problems understanding what anyone is saying to me.

Of all the features required to use a language, my pronunciation is probably the thing that has deteriorated the least. I still know how to pronounce words and I can still more or less get my tongue round them. In addition, I seem to have retained a lot of those little phrases that French speakers stick in between or at the end of phrases (“si tu veux”, “he ben”, “quoi” etc.) that make whatever I say sound that little bit more natural.

The result of all of this is that provided I get some time to plan what I want to say in advance, I can use my decent pronunciation and throw in some fillers to make my French sound a lot better than it actually is. But although I can fake my speaking skills to some extent, I can’t fake my listening skills. So what tends to happen when I use French is that whoever I’m speaking to assumes that I’m a decent speaker and therefore a decent listener. They then give what seems like an appropriate response which I, given my rubbish listening skills, can’t understand.

I’ve developed a strategy to address this. Whenever I speak to someone new in French (a waiter, a shop assistant, or whoever), I make sure that my opening phrase is badly pronounced. It’s just a little marker to indicate to the listener that they’re dealing with someone whose French is not that great, and that they’ll need to bear this in mind when communicating with me.

Does anybody else do this?

This is not a strategy I’m particularly proud of, and deliberately speaking badly is not something I would consider recommending to my students. But having said that, it seems to be working out OK for me in that I’m having a lot fewer embarrassing moments of misunderstanding on this holiday than I have in the past.

I realise of course that what I should be doing is trying to develop my listening skills more so I can understand at least as much as I can speak. Funny how language teachers are not necessarily very good language learners.

Or is it just me?

  1. Chris Ożóg permalink

    Hi Steve,

    As someone in more or less exactly the same position, I enjoyed this post a lot. The thing I started doing (both in French and Spanish) was inserting clefts when there really wasn’t a great deal of need e.g. ce que je veux acheter…. c’est… [frantically buying time]. Or asking myself audible rhetorical questions, again to buy time. I would also ask for a word I already knew, just to tell my interlocutor that I wasn’t very good at French.

    In the end, these are just some of the communication strategies we employ when not fully proficient, though here they’re more affective than linguistic, as you’re trying to communicate a lot more than simply anything transactional. I suppose they’re more conversational facilitation strategies. And if they work, then why not?

    A la prochaine,


  2. Hi Chris,
    Your examples about additional fillers are exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. I’m glad you replied – the lack of comments was making me think that maybe it IS just me!
    I suppose you could see them as communication strategies, but they’re not ones I’m particularly proud of. Rather than doing this, I feel I should be doing more to improve my listening skills and then I’d have less need of them. Maybe I can look at them as “bridging strategies”, or something.
    Thanks again for your comment!

  3. Hi Steve,

    A VERY interesting post. And no, you’re not alone in throwing in a verbal clue to help shape what comes next. I’ve been living in Ukraine for 2 years and although I speak decent Russian (10 years of study) I do the exact same thing you do when it comes to public interactions. I kick myself for doing it, but like you said, it really helps make what follows more understandable. If the person knows I’m not a native speaker, they keep away from slang and speak in more general terms (not to mention just being nicer in general*). The times when I don’t identify myself right away, people assume I’m Ukrainian and things can really get awkward. I guess that would be a better learning experience, though… Maybe that’s why my progress is so slow.

    The other thing is, it usually comes down to this:
    a) if you speak well but don’t understand something, the other person will think you’re an idiot but
    b) in the same situation, if you make some glaringly obvious language learner mistake, the other person will realize you’re a foreigner instead of an idiot and make some allowance.

    For example, I live here with my boyfriend, who is a native Russian speaker but lived in the States so long that he lost a lot of his cultural tics. It’s funny because he has no way to communicate his foreignness- he sounds completely native- and people get upset and treat him like an idiot if he doesn’t know how to do something that’s basic to them, like how to refill your balance on the local mobile phone network. I get in the same situation and people are much more polite. They probably still assume I’m an idiot :p but they’re not calling me on it to my face like they do with him.

    *I guess this is the other reason I do this. Ukrainians aren’t known for being very friendly in a customer servce capacity- all that leftover Soviet brusqueness. Playing the foreigner often equates to better service. In fact, if you go to a restaurant here and speak only English, you’ll likely get better service than if you went speaking perfect Russian/Ukrainian. Anyways, maybe it’s the same for you- you get some perks if someone recognizes what you are?


    • Hi Katherine,
      Thanks for sharing your experiences. I don’t think being obviously an English-speaker gets you better treatment in France, but I have been in situations where foreignness can help. For me it’s more about not being mistaken for an idiot. But it’s an odd strategy when you think about it, being deliberately bad at something so people don’t think you’re stupid in a different way.
      I wonder how common this is among our learners..?

      • Hi Steve! It is an odd strategy for sure. I’ve seen it in a couple of my older learners and while shaking my finger at them, somehow (shamefully) okayed it for personal use…

  4. Interesting strategy, Steve. I think you might be better off improving your listening skills, though 😉
    I’m not sure I agree with the comment you make in the post: “surely it’s important (or should be important) for many language learners to be perceived as non-native users of the language”. From the perspective of a language learner (I can pass myself off most of the time as a native speaker in Spanish and in English), the biggest compliment somebody could give me is that they thought I was a native speaker. But I guess it might have got something with the perfectionist hiding somewhere in me 😉

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