“ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL…, ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR…repeté s’il te plait!”
“Non, non! Attention!” My French professor claps her hand and points to me. “You! Watch my mouth, yes? ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL, ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR…okay?”
I look at her helplessly and place my tongue on the top of my mouth. “ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL,” then move the tongue to behind my front teeth, “EAIIIRRRRRASDKFLJSKDGLJKSRRRRRR…”
“I do not understand,” she looks at me with irritation. “Why you cannot do this? ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.” She says it even more slowly as though somehow I was confused. The letter “R” is written on my worksheet and on the board and coming out of her mouth…I get it…I just can’t pronounce it.
You might think that learning the French language is the hardest part, and it is difficult, but the accent presents a whole new challenge. In attending French classes, I thought that we would be studying vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and we did; but I had no idea about the amount of time we would spend doing things like repeating, “ohhhhhh….ahhhhhh….ehhhhh” in order to retrain my American mouth to make the right shape.
In many countries, you wouldn’t bother to even try to perfect your accent. It is considered “cute” to have an accent and makes you more attractive and appealing…but this isn’t many countries, this is France. And while there are some French people who will tell you that your accent in French is adorable, more often than not they will spend copious amounts of time correcting each and every pronuncial (yes, I just made that word up) infraction that you make, no matter how great or small.
This isn’t done in a rude way or a mean way, just a very matter-of-fact way:
“Oui, mon copain aider (ah-day)—,” I might begin.
“Aider (eh-day).” They will say this correction swiftly before you have even managed to finish your sentence.
“Ah oui, pardon, eh-day moi avec le lecon (less-on).”
“Ah oui…avec le “loose-on” une (ahhh).”
“Tu dit une (ahhhhhhhhh) mais c’est une (ahn). C’est obvious, non?”
By the time this rigmarole is over you have either a) forgotten what it was you were trying to say or b) lost your motivation to try to speak. While this can be an extremely exhausting practice, I continue to press on…bad pronunciation and all. I know that I’ll never be able to make the ERR sound properly but that’s okay, because after all, “to err is human, to forgive, divine” and maybe someday the French will forgive me.