Speak French with an accent? Use it to your advantage

Nick Inman tells us not to worry if we cannot shake our accent just focus on the message not the packaging

‘Everyone has an accent but only snobs judge how other people talk’

To Anglophone ears, there is nothing more seductive than a French accent.

It is similar, but not quite the same, the other way around.

An English accent is not sexy but it is cute and charming, conjuring up images of teatime in Downton Abbey.

An accent is not a bad thing to be stuck with

Almost everyone who learns a foreign language as an adult will always carry the inerasable, audible whiff of their first language.

Only the very lucky Briton or American will pass through France without being immediately recognised as a foreigner.

Read more: Buffing up your French pronunciation

Perfect mimicry seems to be something you are born with, or not.

Everywhere I go, everyone instantly knows I am not French. Do I care?

I used to, when I still thought there was a possibility of me getting my lips to move in the shape of sau-cis-son and dessert.

Now I know that half the vowels in French simply do not work in my mouth, the best policy is to anticipate the reaction I will get and use it to my advantage.

On the plus side, my accent is the perfect ice-breaker

I do not have to say anything meaningful; just say anything, and I will get a reaction.

Most new interlocutors visibly furrow their brows and do a double-take. They know they are going to have to work a little to understand me.

This lets me assess the person I am dealing with: is he or she friendly and obliging, or surly and uncooperative?

Is this person put off by superficial things like my torturing of the French language, or willing to concentrate on an exchange of meaning?

A very, very few French people behave as if I could speak better French if I only made more of an effort, but they are the exceptions.

In 19 years of living in the south west, only twice has some idiot mocked my accent with cruel intent.

More often, I get an interested inquiry. “Et ce petit accent si charmant?” asked the nurse who was preparing me for a colonoscopy. And we were off on a conversation.

It happened again in a DIY store.

The young cashier wanted to know where I was from and I let him practise his English on me.

Read more: Really speak like a local… use these French filler words

Duff grammar will still be a problem

The problem is, of course, when there is too much of an accent and the other person cannot understand me.

Intonation and dodgy vowel sounds must not combine with duff grammar and inappropriate word choice to make my message unintelligible.

An accent does not excuse everything. It can still be depressing when I utter a sentence of what I believe is flawless French and the other person just looks at me perplexed.

Worse is when I hear a recording of myself speaking French. I cannot believe anything could be so tone deaf.

Read more: Learning French: Five ways to push through the pain barrier

Jean-Paul Gaultier had the right idea

I have had to learn a few psychological techniques to not let the discouragement get the better of me.

One of these is to remember that everyone has an accent but only snobs judge how other people talk.

The most important thing I have found is to concentrate on the message, not the packaging.

If the other person has a problem with that, it is their problem, not mine. I am doing the best I can with what I have.

“I realise I have an accent and I don’t speak well at all,” says the fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.

“But my desire to express myself is stronger than the idea it has to be perfect.”

Gaultier co-presented the outrageous comedy magazine programme Euro-trash on Britain’s Channel 4 in the 1990s with Antoine de Caunes.

The hosts’ exaggerated French accents were one of Eurotrash’s central charms.

If you’ve got it and you cannot get rid of it, all you need do is celebrate it. Accent-it-up to the max. Be what you cannot help being: yourself.

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