As soon as I got back to New York I was determined to return to Paris. I knew that not only had I not made as much progress in French as I had wanted during my few months there – despite being able to carry on a relatively simple French conversation – I hadn’t pushed myself far enough outside my cultural boundaries.
I would be in New York for another two months before I went back to Paris, and I didn’t want to lose what French I’d learned. So I kept Paris close. I subscribed to TV5 Monde, the French-language channel, and watched it often. I also listened to Radio Classique, a French classical-music station that was broadcast live through an app on my iPhone. Although its playlist is rather small – it tends to rely on snippets of well-known classical tunes – it still afforded me the opportunity to hear French in the background as I worked. It wasn’t a full immersion, of course, since life bustled around me in English and Spanish outside my apartment, but I did what I could.
And I took a month-long course at the Alliance Française in New York, to make sure I was keeping up with my studies.
This was a test. Not of my language abilities, but of where I was in dealing with personal defects. Yes, I judged. Mainly the accents of the other students, who were all American, like me.
This was an advanced class, so we were all supposed to be relatively comfortable in the language. Apparently whether we were advanced or not in French was a self-assessment, since the language competency of the dozen students in my class ran from bumbling to near-fluency. I was somewhere in the middle. I bumbled along pretty well.
But I was horrified, however, on hearing the accents of the students, even those who seemed to be able to express themselves with relative ease. I wondered if I came off as American as they. To my ears, accustomed for a few months mainly to Parisians speaking French, the others sounded like lead-footed yokels trampling on delicate vowels as if they were pressing grapes.
My French friends had told me they’d found my accent charming – but they could simply have been being polite. (Often the French will tell you they wish they could speak English as well as you speak French, one of those common conversational delicacies that play to your vanity without necessarily being true.) And my Parisian friend Kathleen had urged me not to lose my accent even as my spoken French grew more fluid, saying that my petit accent defined me for her.
I had assured her I wouldn’t totally lose my American accent (some French listeners thought it was British, but that’s because to the French most Anglophones who speak French pronounce French words in a similar way, even those whose accents are more refined than others). In any event, I couldn’t lose my accent. I’d begun to learn French too late in life for that. As it was, I was just beginning to differentiate regional French accents – at that point I could almost tell if someone came from the south, but for the life of me I couldn’t recognize if someone were Norman or Lyonnais let alone Belgian or Swiss. So to lose my accent wasn’t even a possibility. I could barely tell how American I myself sounded. I just didn’t want to sound like the people in my class.
The students at the Alliance Française on Madison Avenue and 60th Street, however, made me realize that however proud I might have been when my French friends praised the way I spoke, in New York I was probably just as clumsy-sounding in French to the ears of the other Americans as they were to me.
Everyone speaks with an accent, of course. We immediately detect accents of others in our native tongue. I sometimes heard the host of French talk shows ask a guest where he or she had come from, having detected an accent that was different from whatever the norm in France is. That made me listen to the guest to detect the regionality, a way of training my ears to those different sounds. But it takes a lifetime of listening to hear subtleties of pronunciation.
I think I wanted my accent to be good enough so that people might question where I was from – that I was not a native French speaker would be evident, but that I spoke French well enough so that my nationality might be unclear would be a sign of, I don’t know what. More than fluency, perhaps, but maybe a questionable badge of honor for someone who wanted to prove himself capable of seeming unclassifiable on some level. As if that made me admirable
That’s what I meant by character defect: using whatever it is you’re learning not only to improve yourself but to prove yourself somehow different, i.e., better than the people around you. I wasn’t, of course – and my stumbles during exercises in that New York Alliance Française French class constantly reminded me that no matter how uncommon it was that I had been living in France and learning another language, I was still a beginner. And I could still be a common snob, since I was searching for ways to make myself look better not only for myself but in the eyes of those around me. Even as I sounded as American as the rest of the students who were trying to better themselves just like me.