(asked by Holly from the US)

Okay, so you’ve had a question about whether the French can recognize regional American accents BUT what do they think about an American accent when someone speaks French? I have friends living in France who have had several reactions-one man complimented her on her “charming” accent and another told a friend that she shouldn’t speak French so well because American accents are charming and hers wasn’t strong enough. So what…is she supposed to “dumb down” her French? Another said she should work more on getting rid of her accent because it was annoying. What’s the consensus?
The consensus is that there’s no consensus.
While the US has its share of connotations and stereotypes about foreign (and regional) accents, France doesn’t.
So, no we don’t have things similar to “oh, the French accent is so cute and so sexy.” And by the way, this cliché was and still is to this day one of the biggest mysteries I have ever encountered. What can anyone find anything sexy about a French accent in English? The only thing I “feel” when I hear a French accent in English (don’t get me wrong, I include mine here) is annoyance, and the only thing it connotes to me is lameness or even obsequiousness in some people.
So the American (and every other foreign accent in France) won’t connote anything special to most of the population except foreignness, or actually, they will connote very different things depending on people, their own personal history, their own personal ear, etc.
And some French people will find the accent charming, some other will find it annoying, and most won’t care.

Diane (from the US) asked basically the same question, but also asked:
What is the most annoying thing that they mispronounce? What comes off as cute, even though it’s completely wrong?

And I guess I’ll let any French speaker that want to respond do it, because I find myself unable to answer. Mostly because I’m quite numbed down to those kinds of things as I’ve been around Americans in France (and French speaking Americans in the US) for too long, and I ceased paying attention to that a long time ago (but I remember that when it was still a novelty to me, there were a few)

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  32 Responses to “What do French people think of American accents in French?”

  1. The hardest part of speaking French as an American is that because of our not perfect accents it can cause us to mispronounce words to the point that the intended French listener has no idea what we are trying to say. Blowing one word can destroy an entire sentence.

    I've been to France about 50 times in my life. My French is not perfect, but I try to nail the inflection and emotion. If I ask, the French tell me I have a non-accent, kind of generic if you will. French women have told me my accent is "cute." That's good enough for me.

  2. well being American of course I have to jump, no LEAP in to the mix … :P (I say that us 'mericans are the labradors of the world).

    1st off, I hate the fact my French sucks and after my year and a half here I'm still not fluent. Of course, I'm negligent in that I quit regular classes after about 6 months and have relied on my immersion here to help advance me.

    Nearly all of the french I interact with or encounter have assumed I am english. I am speaking english, therefore I am english. I immediately correct them and find they are much more interested and open to me once the discover I am American. lol, but that is because I live in a region that (in their opinions) is overrun with english.

    My close friends who are french claim to think my accent is cute. especially my 'r' s.

    go figure.

    as far as what I mispronounce most. um. probably the words that spelled the same in english. wait, no those are the words use improperly most, assuming they have the same meaning

    drat. well I did just discover my pronunciation of a very basic word 'quand', has been off … sounding more like a posh mediterranean city than what we would call a con man in the states.

    le sigh.

  3. I never quite understood either what is the fuss about the French accent while speaking English. I am French, but I can speak with a Britsh or an American accent, and I have been told once or twice that it would be nicer with a French accent. But most of the time, people find it easy to understand, and do not care that I sound not so typically French. In my opinion, foreign accents can appeal to some people because it gives an "exotic", foreign feeling, and makes them feel as they were travelling. Or it reminds them of a period they were in the country the person is from… For instance, I spent a very nice summer in Toulouse, in the south of France, ten years ago, and I love to hear the French accent from there, because it reminds me of the wonderful time I had there. But it is linked to a very personel experience, and I think the way people react to accent is often due to that sort of things.

  4. -Non, je ne regrette rien: What language do you speak at home? If it's English it's totally normal that you're not fluent yet. If it's French, it's not normal at all… :)
    (if you need tips, do not hesitate of course).

    -Concerning what people around you think of English speaking nationalities, you live in a very peculiar place that has a very odd relationship with the Brits, but if they assume you (or any other English speaker they meet) is English, it's not because of your accent (most likely they can't make the difference) but because they're "invaded" by Brits.

    -Laetitia: I agree.

    Also, the whole "oh your accent is cute" thing, I'm sure people find your accent cute only if they find you (personality and/or physically) cute. I'm not sure they're find the accent of a very horrible and/or ugly person "cute".

  5. What I love, is when people use french words or expression. Like "day Ja Vouuuu" for "déjà vu".

    I find, English accent quite sexy, It will always remind me the American girl from "hélène et les Garçons"… I feel so lame bringing that up :D

    Also for me, pronouncing word with French roots is very hard.

    My wife also make fun of me, because I always mispronounce the H. Like "ot" for "hot". I guess English speaking people, tend to do the same in french but the other way around.

  6. I can't speak for all Americans, but I think the French accent in English is sexy for the same reasons that the French language is sexy. The nasal vowels sound better, the intonation is pleasurable, the lip puckering, the husky/lower octave you have to speak in to pronounce the R etc.

    However, this is not universally true. There have been a few times where my French teacher has been pronouncing English words with a French accent which caused me to do a "double take" (and not the good kind!). For example, one time he said "hobbies" and I thought he was asking me about "herpes." But, I do agree that exoticism plays a big part. The accent was definitely more attractive week 1 of my lessons as opposed to now (week 8). Of course, that could have more to do with the content of what he says versus how he says it.

    But, I have always wondered if the French who normally use an American accent when speaking English still keep the American accent when pronouncing French words that have made their way into the English vernacular (for example: Paris, encore, risque etc). For example, if you said "I'm going to Paris this weekend" would you pronounce "Paris" as "pah-ree"? I, myself, have a hard time not pronouncing English words in English when speaking in French- especially proper nouns.

  7. Smh2141 you do realize what you just wrote right?

    Whether it is "I think the French accent in English is sexy for the same reasons that the French language is sexy" or "I have always wondered if the French who normally use an American accent when speaking English still keep the American accent when pronouncing French words that have made their way into the English vernacular"

    So as I don't want to mock you in front of everybody (I guess I feel like being nice tonight), I won't respond and ask you to think about what you just wrote.

  8. "I have always wondered if the French who normally use an American accent when speaking English still keep the American accent when pronouncing French words that have made their way into the English vernacular"

    That's just funny. The answer is: no. A resounding no. Why would they mispronounce words in their own language?

  9. smh, the French people I have spoken with in English try to pronounce everything correctly for the language they are speaking. So, everything is with the anglo-ish accent if speaking English, that I've heard, even borrowed French words, of which is half of English. I have heard it said that the French actually believe that there are no accents, just mispronunciation. :)

    Frenchman, Oklahoma?!

  10. Ok let me clarify this a bit.
    If we're talking about French words that are in the English language have been there for a long time, are now part of the English language, some have been since as far as the 11th Century. Those words are of course pronounced the English way that would be stupid to pronounce them any other way.

    Now we have French words that are not part of the English language. Those are not pronounced with an English accent, that would be stupid.

    -Diane: About 70% of English words come from French (but they're used about 25% of the time).
    I'm not sure what you mean by "I have heard it said that the French actually believe that there are no accents, just mispronunciation."
    And I don't know why I wrote Oklahoma really, I'm correcting this now.

  11. Diane, I'm not publishing your latest comment because I want to use part of it for a question (I hope it'll take me less than 5 months to respond), I copy and answer to the rest here:

    "And French people who want to be understood by English speakers definitely do say Paris and other words like that the English way in my experience. Possible that we know different people?"

    You may have misunderstood me. Of course, anybody French or not will say "Parisss" when speaking English and should say "Parih" when speaking French. What I meant is that a sane French person (and that's not trying to show off or anything) will pronounce English words with a French origin the English way, but French words "inserted" in the English language the French way.

    For example, French people -that can speak English, of course, that's the prerequisite in that case- will pronounce words like… well "pronounce" "prepare" "page" and thousands of others with an English pronunciation, that's actually how you can tell if a French person can speak English or not.
    But words like "déjà vu" or "sauté" will usually be pronounced the French way, although it depends on the people and the situations.
    Personally, if I have the hardest time to say "déjà vu" with an English pronunciation, I will say "sauté" indifferently with French pronunciation or the English one, depending on many factors I haven't really paid attention to.

    "The accent thing was actually said about speaking French, probably by a Parisian, I have no idea."

    I see… Yeah, another stupid parisianocentrism… Some people in France are convinced that there is such a thing as "the real French" and countless bastardized version of it. Some go to the extent to not consider Canadian French or Swiss French as real French.
    I won't comment on those people right now, I mean to stay polite today.

    Now, we must differentiate (regional) accents from (foreign) accents, and dealing with foreign accents, some people amalgamate foreign accent and mispronunciation of the foreign language. Well, that's mostly because they don't know anything about the mechanics of foreign languages. Foreign accent and mispronunciation are two different things.
    For example, a French person will mispronounce English when they say "th" like "z" or worse like "f", never pronounce "h" at the beginning of a word, say "-tion" as "-ssion".
    They will have a French accent when they'll stress the end of words rather than the beginning, when they link words together too much, articulate their sounds too much and stuff like that.

  12. I've been in the States for 4 years now and I'm still a big offender on the silent "h" error. Yesterday I was looking for headlight bulbs for my car and every time I talked to someone about it they were clueless because I maimed the pronunciation of "headlight". I'm afraid I'll always be bad at this.

    When it comes to French locations and clear imports like "joie de vivre" I often use the French pronunciation, I'm mischievous like that. My first name (Franck) is a tricky one too. I react to it when said the American way, but when I introduce myself I say it the French way half the time, without any clear reason behind it.

  13. Concerning the frontal "h", I think it's the hardest thing to do properly in English when you're a French speaker. I kept on making the mistake long after mastering the "th" fine. The trick is to force yourself exhaling that air out of your chest, keep in mind that it's a "real" letter like any other and that it must be pronounced like any other.

    Yeah, first name are a complicated issue. First, I didn't really like being called "Dayvid", but then I realized I hated even more the affected way people took when trying (and failing) to pronounce it the French way correctly, I'd rather them say "Dayvid".

  14. I usually introduce myself as 'Jo', get a blank look, correct it to "Zhoahnnah" and then frequently get told that that (Joanna) is 'a much nicer name anyway'. Um, cheers.

    Personally, I disagree slightly on the difference between 'mispronunciation' and 'accent'. For me 'mispronunciation' means that you don't know how the word should be said, 'accent' means that you are unable to pronounce the word correctly (at least without a lot of concentrated effort) even though you do know how it should sound. For example, I have a *lot* of trouble saying French 'r' sounds between vowels e.g. Paris (something like très I can just about manage, I think…) I would put the French difficulties with 'th' or 'h' in this category, whereas when one of my students mispronounced 'dumb' today, it was simply that he didn't know the b was silent.

    Interesting stuff as usual :)

  15. My ex-boyfriend is French, from Paris, but living here in New York, and he would go on and on about how adorable my accent was when I was speaking French with him (I'm American, my accent is apparent, but easily understood when I'm speaking French in Europe) and I never believed him. But many of his friends, male and female, who had no reason to think I was cute, agreed. I finally pointed out to him that it's as annoying for me to hear that as it is for him to have American girls tell him they love his accent (happens roughly a million times a day) because I want to be heard for what I'm saying, not how I say it. We agreed to mutually ignore our respective accents after that.

  16. dah-veed: (demonstrating I can insert a French-accent if I want! lol) well, I think it is only *moi* who insists my french sucks and I'm not fluent. Although my bar for 'fluency' is very high (and you strike me as someone who would disdain my French, too…heh).

    As far as what I speak at home, well I live alone. So when talking to myself it is mostly in English…American English, I add. I do find myself inserting French more and more. And yes, I completely agree with your comments on the invasion! hah!

    My closest friend here is French and he defends my language skills whenever I berate them.

    Put it this way. I am understood when I speak French. I am also corrected by my French friends (thankfully). It isn't unusual for me to forget 'les petits mots' and proper conjugaison.

    Funny, most of the french round here speak their English with a brit accent. sigh. but then I was reflecting upon this today and some of the (upper crust, terribly posh tut tut) brit accent is similar to the French. for example, how they pronounce their "A"s. (ah). as in Frahnce. :P

    My french friend (above) urges me to tutor that 'wall street english' you see all the sign for in the Paris metro. He thinks the market for American-accented english is hot with les Francaises…

    il est un fou.

  17. Fluency is when you can communicate in an efficient manner in the language.

    And whether I like or dislike your French, don't worry, it goes against my deontological ethics to mock it. :)

  18. I think the whole "the French accent is appealing" thing stems from the simple idea of being intrigued by something you don't hear everyday. I'm from the East Coast of the US and there are plenty of people here who might think that another American's Southern "twang" would be just as "cute". More than anything, I agree with Frenchman's idea of all of this depending on a person's general perception of you. If someone doesn't like you, your accent isn't exactly going to serve as a judgment of character.

    In terms of the perception of the American, again I agree that it depends on the person. From my brief time in France I encountered both happiness with people's inability to immediately tell that I was a native English speaker, to almost disappointment that my American accent wasn't totally obvious. It was all harmless though.

    Erm, as for American's mispronouncing French terms, it varies, but personally I think the "r" is still the most difficult to master as well as not getting lazy with the nasal "i".

  19. As an American in France, I can say that no French person that I've talked to could tell my nationality based on my accent. In fact, most people have assumed I'm German. Because they can't tell I'm American based on my accent, I don't think they have any special affinity for the "charm" of the American accent. They probably just think, "oh, that person's foreign."

    Also, could any French person shed some light as to why so many French-speakers, despite how good their English is, still have so much trouble with the "h?" My boyfriend (French) lived in the US for 5 years and speaks English fluently and generally with the right pronunciation, but still has a very difficult time with pronouncing "h." Oddly enough, he also sometimes adds an "h" sound in front of words that start with a vowel (i.e., pronounces "hear" for the word "ear" or "hoven" of "oven"). It goes even further, because words in English that actually have a silent "h," he pronounces it (i.e., pronounces the "h" on "honest" or). I don't have difficulty NOT pronouncing the "h" in French, so I'm interested on why this seems to be a difficulty for francophones speaking English. It's all very baffling!

    I agree "r" is the most difficult letter to get right in French (or most languages for that matter), especially when it's preceded and followed by vowels, as in "Paris," the city in which I live. I feel like I know what it's supposed to sound like in my head but when I say it, it sounds horribly wrong. It's kind of embarrassing to live here and not be able to pronounce the city's name very well.

    Anyway, love the blog!

  20. French people have trouble with the "h" in English simply because they never learned how to pronounce it properly. So they use the French pronunciation when confronted to an "h" that is simply ignore it, or stop your air flow for an instant (what you do with words starting with vowels in English).
    On the other hand, in French, your air flows goes steady (i.e. pronounce a "h" sound) when words start with a vowel.

    Then, you have people that are a little bit better at English that know that "h" should be pronounced but that will struggle with it for years if not forever: because of hyper-correction (do it for every word, even honor, hour and such) and stuff like that.

    For most French people, pronouncing "h" the English way will never be a natural thing, and mistakes will be made, just because worse than not learning something there is "mislearning" something.

    And as far as the French "r" is concerned, that sound is pretty unique (I'm not sure any other language has it, at least not European languages), so it's really hard to make it, impossible for most people.
    And my advice is: better use the English "r" than overdoing the French one (which is what happens when people try to hard and think they got it right)

  21. My solution: I gave up asking for 'restaurants' and now just get baguettes! ;)

  22. Silly question: what is the difference between a French R and a German R? They sound very similar to me.

    I agree that it is hard for foreigners to make the French r, and it can be painful to hear when it's overdone or done wrong. But I have heard some French that has very strong R's. I guess the difference is, real francophones don't do it really strongly every R, every time. I don't suppose there is some sort of rule about it?

    And what about in singing? In proper singing training in English, they tell us to sing like the British, with that eh sound instead of the real English R at the ends of words. There seems to be no such distinction that I hear in French music, though? Rockers break the rules in English though, so maybe this is also true in French?

  23. Well, I don't speak German well enough to really answer this question, but it's true that they sound pretty close to each other.

    And no, there is no "rule" about how strong the "r" should be, it'll depend on words (or on the letters before and after the "r", a phonologist would answer that in more details), regional accents and just people.

    I don't know anything about singing.

  24. Kyle, I teach English in a collège in Paris and that strange h-before-a-vowel is a regular occurrence in my classes. Usually the problem is that the kids fail to do what they would call an enchaînement, using the last consonant of the previous word before the vowel that starts the new word, like to say "his oven" you actually pronounce "hi zoven" but a French person might say "his hoven."

    Frenchman, linguists call the French r a "uvular trill," and it can be found all over Europe from Portugal to German to Sweden, as well as in some non-European languages.

  25. French accents speaking English aren't sexy, they're maybe a little cute… it's French accents speaking FRENCH.

    When I'm with native French speakers, I feel embarrassed trying to talk in French but they say it's amusing and make me do it anyway.

  26. I agree with Frenchman about how attraction has much to do with perceiving an accent as "cute." However, I think something more interesting to discuss is how the accent can actually override a person's looks. I've firsthand seen some rather unattractive Frenchmen with the accent make friends of mine fall head over heals with them upon first word,(haha) even as the people didn't seem all that interested before they discovered that the person was holding this magical accent. I'm starting to think that attraction doesn't need to be driven by instinctual urges at all. A person can fall in love with an idea and make that love turn them on sexually. It's wild, probably a bit perverse, but there is not anything wrong with that inherently. Of course, I understand that the ignorant association of "cute" to foreigner's pronunciation of languages can obviously be a bad thing too. (it definitely is when it comes to real issues of discrimination of course) I'm just glad to hear that the American accent can be considered "cute" by some French people. I can have this handy to use when I'm hitting on French men in French! :)

  27. Thank you for answering this question, because I've been wondering! I'm still curious about how it will go when I finally do get to France because mixed in with the English-speaker's accent I think I also have some Québecois accent as well, which I believe is looked down on by some (surely not all.)

    But, Frenchman, you can't deny that a French accent in English is sexy. It just is. And of course people's perceptions of what is sexy depends on their mental associations (ie Paris=romance) and the, um, visual input is important too, but still, even given that, some accents are sexier than others. As a biologist by training, I have a theory on this! (Bet you can't wait…) Ok. Mate selection is based on choosing the healthiest and "fittest" (in the Darwinian sense) specimen for procreation. So, I think an accent is less sexy-sounding when it sounds like there might be something slightly wrong with the person's mouth, even though logically you know there isn't. (The logical portion of the brain takes a backseat here.) For example, Chinese speakers new to the language really have trouble speaking clear English because making some of the sounds, for them, involves making a distinction between some sounds which in their language would not be distinguished, so they kind of blend things together in a way that sounds a bit like they don't have complete control over their tongue muscles (until they lose their accent, of course). In most European languages, words tend to be pronounced more completely, which leads to over-pronunciation in English, as you mentioned. When you add in extra sounds, it's still clear your mind and body are working well. Even with dropping h's, you're working harder, adding in extra vowel sounds for each vowel, etc. So you benefit from the drive to avoid inbreeding (exotic & different is good) while still demonstrating fitness - presto, it's sexy. British accents are sexy to Americans too, except those yucky super-upper-class ones that sound like the person can't breath through their nose and you want to offer them a tissue. That's not sexy…

  28. -Margaret: yes, when English-speaking Canadians start speaking French and that's a Québécois accent that comes out of their mouth instead of "standard" North American English speaker accent it's always a surprise. But don't worry, the Québécois accent isn't looked down by anybody, except a few of those stupid people that think that there's only one proper way to speak each language.

    "you can't deny that a French accent in English is sexy" that's exactly what I deny, or more specifically the "is". As you explain after, it's all about perception, cultural preconceptions and of course biology.

    Also, your rationalization of why you don't like the Chinese accent doesn't hold. Every language makes distinction between sounds other languages don't make. As you most likely know, the French have the hardest time to hear the frontal "h" in English, as well as the specificity of the "th" (they will hear it either as a "f" or "z"). But it's true that the French have no problem physically articulating English sounds (it's the tongue positions that causes them problems).
    On the other hand, English speakers have all sorts of problems to physically articulate most French sounds properly, but that doesn't make some English accents less sexy in French.
    Back to the Chinese, while they have an accent when learning a new language like anyone else, I wanna say that they're almost in a position of power when it comes to sounds, as their language contains more sounds that most languages. But they'll have trouble with the Germanic tendency of grouping consonant sounds together as such a thing doesn't exist in Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese). You may be confusing with the Japanese, who, with a grand total of 60 or so different sounds in their language have trouble pronouncing correctly most foreign languages…
    While I've met some Chinese that can speak whatever little of a language they know with little to no mispronunciations.
    (Yes, one also needs to distinguish mispronunciations and accents. For example, I seldom mispronounce anything in English -well, it's been happening more these days, as I'm less and less surrounded with English speakers in my everyday life- but my accent is definitely French, always was, always will).

    • You DENY? I don’t think people with French accents know how they sound. When Americans (well, the Americans that I know, including myself) hear French accents, they automatically think, “I love their accent!! So attractive, romantic, cute, etc!!!” And that’s mainly because it’s different than the nasally, obnoxious tones that you can hear in most voices over here. I do however find it maddening when someone with an accent keeps going, “uh uh uh” because they don’t know how to say what they want to in English…but I’m sure that’s annoying to pretty much everyone. I’m glad American accents aren’t irritating to French people, and I’m really glad that they are sometimes considered “cute”. Thanks for answering this question! And enjoy having an accent. (I’m not being sarcastic on that last note). <3

  29. When I was living in France, it struck me that a French person speaking English with a strong accent sounded somewhat like a deaf person speaking. No offense to either, but neither are particularly sexy.

    To comment on this and a later post you wrote about the cultural importance of language for the French, by the time I left there, I could communicate fluently (make myself understood, hold higher level conversations, etc) despite grammatical mistakes, but I hesitated to call myself fluent. Back in the US, I would say, yes I'm fluent but the French would say no… Academie Francaise and your comments on language, it's very true. (Of course, enough time has passed since I left France and spoke French, that I'm REALLY not fluent anymore)

    Anecdote: there was this linguist guy who I was trying to be pleasant with and speak with, and he stopped me every other syllable to correct my pronunciation. This came right at the time I had thought I was making a breakthrough in my fluency - they understood me, despite me tutoier-ing an entire group. I wanted to punch him. Instead, I decided to emulate Josephine Baker.

  30. I’m an American, and hoping to move to Paris for college. I’m learning french and I absolutely love it! ^^ I really don’t have any trouble pronouncing the ‘r’ sound in french. It kind of confuses me that people have such a hard time with it. One of my friends is french, and she said I have almost no accent! :D My accent advice is to just listen to the different tones by themselves raer than the whole word when working on pronunciation. Sorry if that doesn’t make sense, it’s tough to explain.

    • It makes sense.
      Some people have a easier time with accents and pronunciation than others. My take on it relates to music. Some people have a “musical ear” some don’t, can recognize different tones or tunes in a sound or not, etc.
      Also, my advice as a French teacher: don’t be too overconfident with your “r”. Maybe it’s perfect, I didn’t hear it. Maybe you think it’s perfect and it’s actually far from it. You don’t know how many people and especially students I’ve met, sure that their “r” was perfect, when it actually sucked big time because they were overdoing it and it sounded much much worse than the good old American “r” in a French word (which is not such a big deal).

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