Patsy Porco

English as my Second Accent

In Humor on January 5, 2013 at 10:22 pm

When I had to choose a foreign language to take in high school in 1974, my mother suggested French, because French, at that time, was the international language—i.e., the language spoken by diplomats. She also said that it sounded elegant. I never considered being a diplomat; speaking French diplomatically to other diplomats held no appeal for me (plus, I couldn’t fathom what diplomats did exactly). Speaking an elegant foreign language to impress others and make me feel superior did, however, hold an attraction for me. So, I took French classes all through high school for four years and got an A every year. Then, I took my college French entrance exam and wound up back at the beginning, in French 101. I blamed my test-taking abilities on my failure to test out of a few levels—or even one—of French.

In college, I took five quarters (my university dealt in quarters instead of semesters) of French. Again, I received A’s every quarter. Soon after completing my studies, I went to a French restaurant in Manhattan, placed my order in French, and was looked at by the waiter as if I were speaking Pig Latin. I was beginning to wonder if my dream of impressing people with my French-speaking ability was to remain a dream. Then I decided that I spoke French quite elegantly; the problem was the snooty French waiter who was trained to sneer at Americans. Everyone knows that the French don’t like Americans.

My mother immediately disproved my theory when she went to Paris and was graciously received by everyone she encountered when she broke out her high-school French. Every French person she met there showed nothing but appreciation for, and patience with, her attempts to speak their language. One restaurant owner spent an entire evening conversing with her in French. After hearing this, I was forced to rethink my opinion about the French, and my inability to be understood by them. I concluded that my teachers were incompetent.

I didn’t give up my dream of speaking in a way that would make others feel inferior to me. I just changed my focus. I decided to learn an accent that I deemed superior to the one I had. I determined to speak my native language in an upper-class English accent. I listened endlessly to English actors, royals, and politicians, and mimicked their speech patterns. I imagined that I eventually would be mistaken for a native Londoner.

Just as I was on the point of taking my accent to the streets, I read an article about how pretentious and idiotic Americans sound when they attempt an English accent. That gave me pause—but only for a moment. This was only one person’s opinion, and who knew what his agenda was? He was probably laughed at when he tried to pass himself off as a native in England.

Then I met an Englishman who said that, while English actors can perfectly mimic an American accent, Gwyneth Paltrow was the only American who could faultlessly speak in an English accent. My first thought was: how does he know if English actors aren’t making pronunciation mistakes? My second thought was: Well, of course Gwyneth can do it. Her husband is English. She hears him speak all of the time. My husband is from the Bronx. I’m not going to get any help there.

I guess my next step is to get a best friend from England. My husband would probably put his foot down on my pursuing an English substitute for him. At least, I hope he would.

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