My Accent is Weird, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I was in an organic market in town buying ingredients to make a red velvet cake. I had my shopping list with all the items written out in French so I could find them easily. I found everything except the buttermilk. I had written two possible French words for this one, so I confidently went up to the cashier and asked where the buttermilk was.

She stared at me blankly. I tried the other word. No good. As I was about to end the conversation, she signaled one of her coworkers to come over, saying, “Je ne parle pas anglais.” 

Mortified, I quickly paid for the rest of my stuff and left. I haven’t gone back since.

***

Many French people have told me that I speak very good French, and I’m always genuinely flattered by it. When someone makes a concerted effort to not just speak their language, but to speak it well, the French appreciate it.

However, I have never made it through more than a minute of conversation with a new French acquaintance without that person asking, “Where are you from?” or saying, in true matter-of-fact French fashion, “You have an accent.”

As an avid traveler, I’m constantly worried about falling into the “obnoxious American tourist” stereotype. I feel like I always have to prove that I’m trying to speak the language well and learn about the culture and not just ask where the nearest McDonald’s is.

It’s probably all in my head, but I hate the sound of my northeastern U.S. accent trying to finagle its way around all those beautiful French vowels and not-so-beautiful nasal vowels. It’s even worse when I make a grammar-related faux pas.

Last night, I walked home with two French friends from a meeting at the aumônerie. It was very cold and the wind blew my hood right off. What I should have said was, La capuche ne m’aide pas,” or “This hood isn’t helping me.” What I said was, Le capuche ne m’aide pas,” using the masculine instead of the feminine pronoun.

I quickly corrected myself, but one friend caught the error, laughed, and said, “It’s cute. It makes you charming.”

UGH.

I don’t think that’s the right response to a compliment, but instead of feeling flattered, I was frustrated that I had accidentally let my American freak flag fly again. Why? Is it because Americans have a bad reputation as tourists? Or do accents have the same effect as listening to a recording of your own voice?

Since then, I’ve been trying to answer the age-old question: why are foreign accents so attractive? I’m not just talking about people with accents being sexually attractive; admit it, even an accent you find grating or annoying catches your attention at first. The best answer I can come up with is that it’s an immediate conversation starter. Humans are curious beings. When someone speaks differently than you, you automatically ask yourself, “How did this person learn to speak like that? Where are they from? What’s their story?” Plus, you avoid the awkward moment of thinking of a conversation topic, because it’s ringing in your ears.

So if my American accent speaking French is “cute” and “charming,” why do I resent it so much? Perhaps it’s because I’m trying to assimilate as much as possible into the French culture, and my accent is one thing that immediately gives me away as not French. So much of our identity is engrained in the organs that allow us to speak, including the language centers of the brain. Even if I lived in France for the next 40 years and learned to speak perfect French, I might never lose that certain American something in my voice that the French would be sure to notice. Sometimes I feel like people hear my accent and not the words I’m speaking, or they see an American rather than me, Vicky.

It’s true that it takes some getting used to when you’re not familiar with a regional accent. But next time you meet someone with a different accent than you, I’d encourage you to listen carefully to their words, not just hear their voice. An accent is just a small part of a person’s identity. Differences should be celebrated, not fetishized.

Oh yeah, for the record, a sexy accent doesn’t necessarily indicate that this person is boyfriend/girlfriend material.

Good. Glad that message rang loud and clear.

À bientôt!

– Vicky

Question: Why do you think people find different accents attractive? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Two Tongues, One Spirit

Happy Pentecost, everyone! At Mass this morning, we heard from the Acts of the Apostles. I was reminded of a talk I gave on my college Catholic community’s fall retreat in October, in which I used the same reading. I’d like to share with you an abridged version of that talk, as my personal Pentecost reflection. Veni sancte spiritus.

I’d like to start by examining what community is, and why the global community of Catholics is a special one. Think of some of the communities you’ve been a part of: a team or club, a staff at a job, etc. In all of these cases, people come together to strive toward a common goal. They have different backgrounds, personalities and beliefs, but there is something bigger than all these individuals that unites them. What do Americans say when we recite the Pledge of Allegiance? “One nation, under God.” We are united. In the global community of Catholics, the Holy Spirit is our uniting force.

Let’s look at a reading from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-11):

“When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, ‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God.'”

Frustrating pronunciation aside, this reading exemplifies why the global community of Catholics means so much to me. How many of you have ever attended Mass at a Catholic church that wasn’t your home parish? I’m willing to bet that most of you had little to no trouble following the order of the Mass. You knew the prayers, when to stand, when to sit, when it was time for Communion, etc. No matter where you are in the world, Catholics celebrate Mass in almost exactly the same way. When we listen to the readings on Sundays, millions of other people are hearing the same words in their own language at the same time. Think about that. Millions of people all over the world — many who you will never meet in this lifetime — are joining together, praising God in one voice. Isn’t that amazing?

The word Catholic comes from the Greek word catholikismos, meaning “according to the whole” or “universal.” This etymology became more meaningful to me over this past year. As many of you know, I studied abroad in Nantes, a large city in the western half of France, during my junior year of college. On Jan. 9, 2013, I arrived alone in a foreign country, loaded down with two huge suitcases and fighting off the remnants of a fever. Even my eight years of French classes couldn’t have prepared me for that moment. The first few weeks were much more difficult than I could have imagined. I missed my family and friends. I missed my life at school. And I missed the Catholic community there. I felt like I didn’t have any roots, or anything secure to hold on to. There were several nights where I cried myself to sleep. I couldn’t leave then; my parents had already bought my plane ticket home for May. I knew I had to live there, but how could I fit in?

My saving grace that semester was my host family. That first night, five pairs of brown eyes stared at me from around the dinner table as I tried to introduce myself in broken French. It was terrifying, but they were patient with me. After dinner, the family gathered in the living room, and Madame explained that the family’s tradition was to read the daily scripture and pray together before bed. I was amazed. I knew my host family was Catholic because their youngest son went to a Catholic high school, but until then, I hadn’t known to what degree they practiced their faith.

I don’t remember what passage Madame read that night, but even with my limited French, I had few problems understanding it. I remember feeling a warm glow sputtering inside my chest. It seemed as though the Holy Spirit was speaking to me, to all of us, in a language that was beyond words and cultural barriers. After she finished the reading, Madame prayed out loud for me, that I would have an easy adjustment to life in France, and for the family, that they would receive the strength and grace to help me as best they could. Afterward, we said the Our Father and the Hail Mary in French, and surprisingly, I could follow along. For the first time since I had arrived in France, I felt like I was home.

As the weeks went by, my faith strengthened me, and I grew in my relationship with God. I learned to say the Our Father and Hail Mary in French. My host family took me to Mass every Sunday and brought along their missal so I could learn the responses. When we visited Paris, we attended Mass at the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal and I got my own medal blessed by the sisters there. About a month and a half into my stay, I started attending meetings of the Catholic community at the local university. Their potluck dinners reminded me of Catholic community soup suppers back home, and I did make some friends there.

I can remember my prayer walk that I did on the last fall retreat before I left the States, where I asked God if He would be with me in France. He said, very clearly, “I will be with you wherever you go.”

Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” But wherever my walk with God has lead me, across state lines or across oceans, I have never been under the impression that a Catholic church has taken me in out of obligation, but out of Christ’s love. It is true that the Church is God’s house, but God’s unconditional love and acceptance and community does not stop at the church doors. As the hymn says, we take the love of God with us as we go. We are called to share that love with the rest of the world. There is no maximum capacity in heaven. God welcomes everyone of every race, language, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, everyone! And we are called to do the same.

If any of you have seen the musical Godspell, the opening number, “Tower of Babble” is a good illustration of this. At the beginning of the number, each ensemble member represents a different philosopher — Socrates, Nietzsche, da Vinci, etc. — and sing their different philosophies loudly, trying to drown out the others. In the next number, John the Baptist enters and tells them to prepare the way of the Lord, and baptizes the whole cast. The Word of God is powerful enough to bring together people who, just moments before, wouldn’t listen to each other or who couldn’t understand one another.

This weekend I pray that we will grow in communion with each other, and through the courage of the Holy Spirit, share that communion with the rest of the world. I would like to close by bringing my host family’s tradition to you. I will be reading from the Gospel of Luke, offering a short prayer, and then closing with the Our Father in French.

A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Luke (6:12-16):

Jesus went up to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. When day came, he called his disciples to himself, and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named Apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called a Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

Loving Jesus, we ask you to open our hearts to one another and to Your word, that we may grow in discipleship with You. Send down your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth. I ask all of this in Your name, Amen.

Notre Père qui es aux cieux,
que ton Nom soit sanctifié,
que ton règne vienne,
que ta volonté soit faite
sur la terre comme au ciel.
Donne-nous aujourd’hui notre pain de ce jour.
Pardonne-nous nos offenses,
comme nous pardonnons aussi à ceux qui nous ont offensés.
Et ne nous soumets pas à la tentation,
mais délivre-nous du mal. Amen.

bientôt!

– Vicky

Have you ever met any Catholics from a different country, or attended Mass in another language? Share your experiences in the comments below.