My friend Jean-Claude was the one who introduced me to the French language back in the early 90′s. A graduate of the Lycée Français de New York and the offspring of former Parisians, JC (as I call him) was handsome, sophisticated and full of savoir faire. (Still is.) He’s the one who taught me all the gutter French I knew – back before I even began to learn the language.
Flash forward about a dozen years, to a bar in the West Village of New York City, where JC and I were having drinks during one of my visits home. I had just started studying at the Alliance Française and wanted to show off my ever-improving French vocabulary, so I recited one of the paragraphs I’d memorized from The Count of Monte Cristo – in the original French. When I was finished, JC looked at me for a very long moment. He began to nod his head ever-so-slightly until, unable to go through with the lie, he shifted directions and began to shake it, rather emphatically I might add. “I didn’t understand a single word you said,” JC stated.
As I’ve said before, the French language has so many rules – few of which are consistent or make sense – that my accent during the early days of my study wasn’t good enough to be merely horrible. I’d even been told by a Parisienne-American that I spoke French with a Spanish accent, which would only have made sense if I was fluent in Spanish. I’m not.
My accent has improved as my vocabulary has expanded, but I still struggle to be understood. Sometimes it’s the rules that trip me up. For instance, I assumed that “Les Halles” followed the rule of blending the end consonant with the beginning vowel of a following word, so I said lez-ahl. My first mistake was that assuming the “H” was to be treated like a vowel, since it was silent. Nope, “H” still holds on to its consonant status, making the correct pronunciation lay-ahl. I also, until fairly recently, was pronouncing “epicerie” as epi-kerry. Non! It’s ah-peese-ree.
I’ve been enormously grateful to my friends in Paris who’ve been willing to correct me without making me feel like a complete imbécile. But I’ve also found a wonderful new tutor to help with my accent, and its name is Google. Yes, that Google.
Sure, Google Translate’s main feature is to, well, translate between almost any language out there. I’ve used it for French to English (and the reverse), and it’s more accurate than Yahoo’s Babel Fish. But what I really, really love about Google Translate is that it offers sound files to go with the translation.
I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent doing French to French “translations” just so I can hear how a sentence is supposed to flow, or how a word is really pronounced (instead of my mangled interpretation). Frankly it’s been a little mortifying to learn just how badly I’ve mispronounced some words. At times I’ve even wondered how I made myself understood at all.
But the woman who is the French voice of Google Translate is far more patient and much less judgmental than any French teacher I’ve ever had. She’ll repeat a word or a sentence as many times as I ask, never once raising her voice with impatience. She doesn’t roll her eyes or cross her arms. On the other hand, she won’t parler plus lentement if I ask, and I have to tell her my name if I want her to address me personally.
Still, I have noticed an improvement in my accent, although I’ve been told I’m beginning to sound a little … dispassionate.
C’est la vie!