To Err is Human

Learning French

“ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL…, ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR…repeté s’il te plait!”

“ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL, EAIIIRRRRRASDKFLJSKDGLJKSRRRRRR”

“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).”

“Lecon (loose-on).”

“Ah oui…avec le “loose-on” une (ahhh).”

“Une (ahn).”

“Quoi?”

“Tu dit une (ahhhhhhhhh) mais c’est une (ahn).  C’est obvious, non?”

No.

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.

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25 thoughts on “To Err is Human

  1. That’s like my attempt to make the Spanish rolling double R. After years of speaking Spanish and studying the language since age 9, I just can’t do it! Oh well c’est la vie! Pfff

      1. Yes I can do the French R. I think it’s easy for me due to all the cat and bird sounds I would make as a child. Yes we should trade or practice together!

  2. I must be lucky with (most) of my French friends…I have (very ocassionally) preached in church and was told that my accent was “exotic” …but I did spend an entire sermon talking about spiritual desserts instead of spiritual deserts…But the French “r” defeats me. I just make a kindof growley noise in the back of my throat and hope for the best. Grrrrrrrrr.

  3. To err is human; to correct is French.

    But to be fair, these little pronunciation errors that we foreigners can’t even hear often make all the difference in meaning – beaucoup vs beau cul was my bugbear for years, and I’d rather be corrected than still making that mistake!

    1. Quite right! I find often that I have said the wrong thing through pronunciation – le sigh – it is a very difficult language, I think. Hopefully, I’ll get there soon!!

  4. Hehe the ever evasive French “RRRR”. I can get it most of the time, but sometimes words just come out and I think to myself “well I sounded like an Anglophone just then, didn’t I?” I have particular trouble with words containing a “dr” or a “tr”. After 6 years in France, and over 15 years studying French, I still cannot say “vendredi” with a convincing accent.

    1. Haha – I am now going to make you say it next time I see you. Anything with ‘jour’ in it is where I get in trouble – every time I say “bonjour” I roll my eyes at myself.

  5. great last line! The pronunciation does get easier. I mean, I still have an accent and probably always will, but FBF often says he misses the days when I couldn’t pronounce an “u” to save my life. Now I’m pretty good at it if I know I have to do it ahead of time (just don’t make me say neck, ass, and coup all at once… I can’t). Keep at it and have MB correct you as much as possible 🙂

    1. Thanks!! Yes, I know I will get there eventually…well maybe. I think about people I know who have lived in other countries for 40+ years and still have strong accents and I may just be one of them! 🙂

  6. You’re lucky that you’re in a school that helps with pronunciation even if it feels like that’s all they’re interested in. 13 years ago I studied french at lyon II and all they focusednon was grammar. All I wanted to do wasnspeak french and have a conversation, I wasnyoung and longed to connect with people my age. Fast forward to now and my accent is terrible but then again I did give up trying but I do get by very well so don’t worry, just learn to smile sweetly and be patient whilst you repeat 🙂

    1. Yes – I do find that smiling and laughing at myself helps immeasurably in getting-by. Always good to make the joke first! I think for the schools, it really is all about finding one that has the right combination of focuses!

  7. Bah-ha-ha-ha!!!! I love it!!! Yes, they do correct you but I’ve learned that they correct you because, for the most part, those are the ones who care that you pronounce words correctly.

    Let me give you one small piece of advice that has helped me learn languages: it’s all about the vowel sounds. Sure, the French R is tricky and you’ll have to work on it but get the vowels down — including the nasal vowels — and you’ll be on your way. And lucky for you that your school places such an emphasis on pronunciation; not a lot of schools do so.

    1. That is very true!! This school does a good job of balancing. I think I was just fully unprepared for how much the pronunciation was going to twist my mouth up!! Haha – now I’m going to start saying things in English weirdly. 🙂

  8. I’ve heard that past certain age (I think it’s 13 or 15) it’s quite impossible to acquire a perfect command of a foreign language because your vocal cords develop certain way. I command you on trying to of course. 🙂 I have a pretty good command of English but I still have an accent (which I hate, of course 🙂 but then Americans are always nice enough to say that it’s a very nice accent. I live in Paris now, and I’m trying to learn French. I do not aspire to be fluent, just to be able to communicate and yet it irks me what you say that they try to correct you all the time. There are so few people here that are able to speak decent English and all I try to do is compliment them whenever they can. What if you tried to correct them? Would that make a difference with how they react to your speaking French? You probably don’t mind but it bothers me. Good luck! 🙂

    1. Haha – yes, I can understand. It depends on my mood – sometimes I find it rather irritating. I have definitely busted my boyfriend on occasion when he has corrected me, by responding with “what exactly do you think YOU sound like? 😉 Good luck – it will get better!

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