What To Do With Your Accent

So I get asked why my people and I say “docta” (doctor) when the word is “doctor” hence the need to say it as doct-OR with an emphasis on the ‘OR’ since the two letter word is pronounced ‘OR’ and not ‘er’ and I go crazy trying to break the heads of these Nigerians the same way I get irritated when they question me about why I say ‘pasta’ and ‘pastor’ the same way.

So in West Africa there’s that constant disagreement between Anglophone countries, mostly Ghana and Nigeria over who better speaks a language we do not co-own but inherited as part of a colonial gift package. This isn’t a history lesson though, so I’ll go on and share the fact that I was also quite pleasantly surprised to hear my professor say that French people do not regard the French she speaks as the original version since she is Belgian, and the fact that growing up she sensed a lack of national pride with regards to French spoken in Belgium since France mocked them and regarded their French as not standard. I also remember sitting in a Francophone culture class and watching a snippet of a show with a Canadian couple whose French pronunciations our teacher asked us to analyze. For what I thought.  At the time it was to help us understand that different cultures possess the French language and have an entirely different approach to it; in terms of pronunciation, lexicons and expressions, etc. Beneath this exposure though,  I felt a hint of mockery but that wasn’t apparent enough so there was no need to explore it. Back to my professor, I would learn that her parents moved around quite a lot and so she had the opportunity of studying in the US, France and Northern Africa all leading to a career that exposed her to the French Caribbean and its own intricate linguistic culture. She would say words a certain way and her mother would be quick to say no do not pronounce it the Belgian way; say it the Parisian way; better still let’s enroll you in a school that would perfect your diction and pronunciation, and help you speak the standard French and so they did.

Moving back to Francophone Africa, it still surprises me how Ivorians, Senegalese or Congolese feel their spoken French is the best. Similar to the raging war between Ghana – Nigerian English. Interestingly enough, Ivorians have this overwhelming sense of superiority (I’ve known too many of them not to be able to safely generalize) and actually make fun of Beninese and Togolese accents. Learning French however, I hung around quite a number of Francophone Africans, mostly West African. I got used to some expressions that did not necessarily apply to other cultures, I also overtime developed an accent other French speakers claim they are unable to place with a specific place. I don’t know if that helped, but as an anglophone, I feel my dream of acquiring Parisian standard French was flawed. In retrospect it was flawed because no matter how I speak or how anyone else speaks for that matter, the key thing is the ability to be all rounded enough to understand when an African, Canadian, Island dweller (Caribbean) or European spoke to me in French. My goal as a French speaker is to understand and be understood and not have a bias against different accents. A year of surviving the swift Parisian and Rennais accents taught me above all things to tune my ears to be able to pick up what was being said to me since these were not as slow or  as stressed as African delivered French.

Talking and listening to American professors who have studied French language and have managed to perfect their French despite an overwhelming urge to gloss over words with American linguistic trade marks such as the infamous ‘R’ sound; the very sound that the French also emphasize especially with the throat and not the lips, I feel I’ve come a long way. Even in the same country, people based on their origins, native language and many other factors, would always have accents.

Accents are a huge issue. My professor argued that if people sought to have neutral accents, things would be better. I’m still thinking about how possible that is.  Accents are still a huge deal though, huge enough to make a person lose their self esteem and huger enough to leave impressions and conclusions and even stereotypes about the person before they have hardly finished their sentence. However, through all of this, I think the most important question is the ability to understand what the other person is saying. Understanding accents, cutting through this layer of haze (if you like) is the most important thing, so i’ll conclude by saying seek to understand, that’s the bigger thing at stake, not necessarily  the battle of accents much like the overrated Ghana and Nigerian Jollof.

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