Une belle rose rouge.
Before I left to teach English in France, this is the sentence that one of my friends — a friend who had grown up near the city of Toulouse, la ville rose (the pink city), where I would be teaching — used to demonstrate a southwestern accent.
As you casually peruse your dictionary of phonetics, you might find it fitting to transcribe the previous sentence like this in standard French:
/yn bɛl ʀoz ʀuʒ/
And this is how you might write it with a southwestern accent:
/ynə bɛlə ʀòzə ʀuʒə/
Which sounds a lot like:
Une-uh belle-uh rose-uh rouge-uh.
All of the normally silent e’s at the end of each word were pronounced, almost making the whole sentence sound like it had been sung rather than spoken. Not only did this cause the words sound a lot more like Spanish than French to me at the time, it also directly contradicted a pronunciation rule that had become automatic to me over what had been more than a decade since my first French lesson: don’t pronounce those mute e’s. But little did I know — and this will come as no surprise to any international student — my mostly-textbook French made me sound like an incomprehensible robot.
Flash forward to my first full day in France, where I had successfully found my way to my new university’s administrative offices for faculty and staff to obtain a copy of my work contract. Not so simple a task: the woman at the desk in front of me, whom I had obviously never met, was insisting that I had already come to see her, and that she had already given me a copy of my contract for that year. She used a word that I had never heard before: bordélique. (Or rather, with the accent, bordélique-uh.) This word had certainly never come up in any of my literature classes, and with my poor American ears accustomed to only the most standardized academic French, I couldn’t even make it out. Not knowing what else to do, I stared blankly, apologized, and hastily retreated from her office.
Later, a colleague helped me figure out and define the mysterious insult: an adjective meaning messy or chaotic, except there’s no exact equivalent because the noun on which the adjective form is based can also mean a brothel. So from what I could tell, this secretary had called me messy like the way a brothel is messy. Gross?
This was actually not the worst introduction to French administration.
I did eventually get a copy of that contract, and it wasn’t long before my ears became accustomed to the melodies of southwestern French. At the same time that I was adjusting to this new form of my second language, however, I was finding myself at odds with my mother tongue. Before leaving for France, I had basked, oblivious, in the privilege held by the majority of Americans whose native language is English, of never having had much difficulty in making myself understood, and I had spent relatively little time in non-English-speaking areas of the world. Now, here I was in France, teaching English to native French speakers… but as I found out very quickly, few of them actually spoke my English.
That’s right, folks: American English is not the most commonly used form of English in all parts of the world. (Gasp! Surprise!) Most of my students spoke a very standard British English known as “Received Pronunciation,” or RP (“ahhhh-pee”). As such, many of the exercises planned for my classes were focused around British expressions, pronunciations, idioms, and cultural references that I had no idea how to explain. What’s a quid, for example? What about a lift, or a lorry, and what’s this about hiring a cab? As far as I know, you can’t hire something that isn’t a person. And how am I supposed to know how best to find an apartment — I mean, a flat — in England? And do they really pronounce it re-SOUR-ces?
I started training myself to be able to speak with a British accent so that I could model pronunciation properly in my classes. The results were less than satisfying — and downright grating to the ears of my poor colleagues from the UK. I grew frustrated at times speaking the “other” English, some students commenting that they had difficulty understanding me. I had never had any reason to be self-conscious about my accent before, and despite myself, it took me quite some time to be able to brush it aside when anyone would call it to my attention. (Yes, I know, it’s very funny when I say the word “water.”)
At the same time that I was coming to terms with my native accent, a more unconscious change was happening: my friends began to point out that my French was taking a southwesterly turn. It became more difficult for people to tell that I wasn’t French, and whereas my English often made me feel like an outsider, in my second language, I began to feel like I belonged in this place that was once so foreign to me.
Now that I’m back in the US, my French is more proudly southwestern than ever. Part of me feels a bit guilty when a student unknowingly reproduces one of my Toulouse-isms, and I do try to call their attention to it when I can, but a larger part of me feels proud for exposing them to the concept that French — or any language, for that matter — isn’t standard, and that there’s a lot of beauty in deviating from so-called “standard” pronunciations. For me, cultivating this accent is a way of commemorating that time in my life and keeping that part of my personal history alive, bringing the sing-songy sunshine of that belle-uh ville-uh rose-uh with me here to snow-covered Brown and beyond.