Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Girl Without An Accent

For the five millionth time in two months, I was told yet again today that I have no traceable accent. Host mama, Stef, was heading out the door with a friend, Valerie, to run some quick errands. When I started speaking, Valerie quickly exclaimed "You don't have an accent!"

I responded promptly to Valerie by saying that it's rather bizarre for me to be told that, but nonetheless, many, many French people have been telling me that since my arrival. I elaborated and state that "no, this is my first time in France," and that by and large, I know "academic French," which means to say, stiff, textbook French. Valerie laughed and said that time here would cure me of that. Additionally, the children I au pair for are teaching me all sorts of pleasant (and not so pleasant) bits of slang. Stef chimed in at the end and added that my vocabulary is impressive, though ever-the-eternal-perfectionist, I still want to enlarge my expressive range.

In essence, I am the Girl Without An Accent. That's both good and bad. I say good because it signifies to me that I have a strong mastery of the sounds and intonation of the language, of its very rhythm and life. French can be an intimidating language because of its reputation as a beautiful one, and because if you're an anglophone learning it, what you hear does not by any means match the sounds you might expect to come off the written page. But it's because of those qualities that I love it. French is musical and beautiful, elusive even, and to me, my lack of accent signals that my going-on nine years of study is paying off.

I'll also be the first to admit that I'm probably a rare case of Accentless-itis. I don't say that to brag, but more because of the fact that I know language is my gift. It's always been my gift. I said my first word at 6 months, was reading by 4, and have the uncanny ability to hear the sounds of other languages and repeat them cold turkey. I can look at another romance language in text and for the most part, I can understand it, without ever having studied it. I'm a whiz at translating latinate-based Old French into English, to the point that graduate class professor last fall would often have me figure out harder portions of texts that older grad students couldn't. My brain is made for and entirely wired for language, and so I am proud of my accentless French. One day I hope to add Italian, Spanish, maybe Portugese, and Latin to the trophy case.

On the other hand, being accentless is a bit like being a linguistic refugee. I say this because having an accent means having the firm and irremovable impression of one's native home, that an accent carries the traces of our roots and our upbringing within itself. The French can't tell I'm American, much less Californian, when I speak French. And to me that seems to say that I am a refugee, floating between the stages of my life, underscoring the sheer lack of roots I have at the moment. Being the Girl Without An Accent seems to mean that I am also the Girl Without A Solid Home and that only serves to make worse the thought that I am entirely transitory right now, a thought that is unsettling if I think about it too much, so I try not to.

But I can't help but be reminded of my lack of rooting when I'm told I don't have an accent.


  1. Apparently Natalie dresses like a Parisian and the two of us can't look lost. On multiple times in Paris last summer people would come up to her and ask her directions in French (at least that is what it sounded like, I'm much better reading French than speaking or understanding it). I'm pretty sure though that after hearing her tell them she doesn't speak French they caught her accent.

    BTW, this skill of picking up a language without an accent could lead to a career in espionage. Just something to keep in mind.

  2. haha Bill! Want to put me in touch with people in careers in espionage you might happen to know?

  3. You already know one of my friends that may or may not have experience in the business and I may know more people than you would expect.

  4. Hey! Remember how Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from Perfume didn't have a smell. Maybe that's what you're like, but without an accent. haha j/k

    Lindsay...why arn't you growing your roots in France? You don't have much time left. How does one obtain the full experience if they hold back? Let them grow Linds, let them grow. And when you leave, it will be hard. The roots will pull back hard, holding on dear. But, how else do the nutrients of life come to harvest?

  5. Robert,

    I would say that I am. And contrary to popular belief, I have a lot of time left. At minimum six months, with a BEYOND STRONG chance that I will be here for another two years getting a Masters degree at either the University of Paris III, University of Paris IV, or the Ecole Normale Superieure. Long story short, they're the best humanities programs in this country, and there is more than one reason that this is a good decision for what I want to do. If you want the whole story, I'll gladly give it to you.

    Depending on whether or not I'm admitted to any one of those three programs, my host family has already said "well...if you want to stay with us next year...we wouldn't mind!"So in some ways, I feel very much like an adopted elder daughter. So we'll see where life goes.

    I miss you. I'm also grateful I have someone like you to keep asking me the hard questions, even though we're about 3-4 thousand miles apart. I hope Tennessee's grabbing hold of your heart :)

    Much love,