I knew that when I came to France, I was going to improve my French accent. What I didn’t know was that I would have to improve my French English accent.
Let me explain.
Just like there are French words in the English jargon (like crème de la crème or à la mode), there are also English words in the French jargon. But they are, for lack of a better term, random words (like “wheesper” or “haute dog,” in addition to the American companies found in France, like “Starbooooks” or “Skipe.”
And these words are spoken with a French accent, bien sûr.
I’ve been having trouble with this, and have been since the very beginning. Number one, I sometimes forget to say the Frenchified version of the word, which makes it difficult for the French to understand since the pronunciations are a little different. And number two, I still giggle a little and feel like I’m putting on airs when I remember to pronounce “Starbucks” like “Starbooooks,” with the “ooo” sounding like “coo.”
But still. Sometimes I feel like I just sound like Steve Martin in The Pink Panther.
When I go to Starboooooks to get some weefee and order a moofan, if I ask for a “muffin” and not a “moofan,” the person behind the counter won’t understand me. It’s the same kind of awkward situation when I mispronounce a French word because of my accent … only this is because my accent is right in English and wrong in French. If I don’t Frenchify the word, then the cashier will give me the same look as if I mispronounced “muffin” for “Eiffel Tower” or something equally preposterous.
I’ve even had to Frenchify my own name so people can say it (or try to). The “li” sound of “Alissa” is similar to the “li” sound of “lick.” Alicka, Alissa. But in French, “I” is only pronounced like “e” is in English. So for the past three months, I’ve been introducing myself as “A-lee-sa.”
My three Drexel friends, funnily enough, also all have “I” in their name (Jennifer of “Jenneefur”; Brittany or “Breetanee”; Lily or “Leelee”). So in a way, we’ve all literally become new and different people in France, I guess.
It’s funny because between in our classes or in our conversations with Frenchies who know English, we’ll speak French as long as we can before we get to a word we don’t know, and then we just say it in English. There have been a lot of times where I get stuck and ask a bilingual person (or describe the word I don’t know in French) for the translation, only to be told it’s the same word but with a French accent. Now I know that if I’m not sure of the word, I’ll just Frenchify it, smile a big toothy smile, and hope it works. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
But this Franglais exists outside of our classrooms, with actual French people. There will be advertisements in English hanging in the Metro, or there will be shops with English written on their windows or on their products. It makes me wonder if that’s why so many people speak English here: because they’ve grown up around bits and phrases. There’s English in French stores (Kookaï’s “___ but chic” shirts and sweater campaign that uses adjectives like “hungry” or “cool”) and French bars (happy hour becomes “Appy Awar”). And English is definitely more accessible in France then French is in America.
When I told people back home that I would be spending four months in Paris, the almost immediate response was always, “Are you fluent?”
I would always say, “Fluent enough,” and leave it at that.
When I come back to Philly and tell people I just spent four months in Paris, I’m assuming they’re still going to ask, “Are you fluent?”
Now I’ll be able to say, “Now I’m fluent enough in French and French English.”
P.S. This is kind of a Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder—“I know who I am. I’m the dude playin’ the dude, disguised as another dude!”—reference, since Steve Martin is an American actor who played a French detective in The Pink Panther trying to improve his French accent. But I love the hamburger scene so I’m kind of trying to make it relevant to this post just so I can add it in.