Thursday, June 21, 2007

People round here ain't from around here...

Living relatively insulated from other countries and other languages, foreign accents have always been kinda neat. A cheery British accent livens up a routine tech support call and an unplaceable lilt makes the woman on the bus seem instantly more interesting to talk to. Though I don't want to be called out as the tourist that I am, I am looking forward to having the accent for a change. Even though the "value" of an accent is really just supply and demand (with a dash of stereotype, prejudice, and cultural taste thrown in) it's hard to deny the instant impact of an accent in the way you perceive someone.

Being the linguistic voyeur that I am, I'm always cocking an ear for the sounds of a foreign language. Some of my friends have seen me double back on a crowded street to stalk passers-by until I can discern what they're speaking. God help them if they're French; I've ambushed people many a time with a "Pardonne-moi mais est-ce que j'ai entendu du francais?" I do it partly to practice my French, but in large part it's for the novelty, mine and theirs. I've hardly ever gotten anything but a delighted reaction and they've usually conversed at length. I have no shame, here, in the US. Strangely, though, I sense that it would be somewhat less appropriate in France to do the same. The novelty, perhaps, is removed. "So you speak French. You're bloody well IN FRANCE! Get away from me and let me finish buying my baguettes." Coming full circle, however, I would be delighted if some kid came up to me and asked if he heard me speaking English. Well, probably the first few times. I wonder how often Madame Unetelle and her daughter get stopped in Raley's. Somehow I don't think conversing in French carries quite the public magnetism as being a rock star. I figure it's somewhere between wearing a Ren Faire shirt and teaching at the local high school.

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