Talk Like A Frenchman

It’s the age-old problem. You find yourself in a country where you don’t speak the language and you’re struggling to make yourself understood. But instead of relying on international translation services or grabbing a multilingual phrase book, you simply say the same thing again, but this time with an international accent. Sound familiar? Well, for one British footballer living in Marseille, mimicking the local French accent has landed him in plenty of criticism.

After making his debut as midfielder for Olympique de Marseille in the Ligue 1 this week, English footballer Joey Barton was keen to get to the press conference and reflect on his performance. But instead of the focus being on his ball skills, the journalists were left stunned by Barton’s French accent, which was even accompanied by a variety of ‘French traits’, such as the nonchalant shrug of the shoulders.

But why did the traditionally hard-nut footballer decide to mimic his Gallic surroundings and drop his traditionally strong Merseyside accent? According to British Doctor Karen Douglas what Barton did is not uncommon. “Speech accommodation”, where the speaker mimics the surrounding accents, happens for a number of reasons, including making themselves understood and even more likeable. In Barton’s case, faced with a room full of French journalists and not the local lingo to get him through the press conference, turning on a more familiar accent and even sentence structure could perhaps have been his subconscious attempt to make his comments clearer.

Overcompensating for a lack of local linguistic knowledge can, however, backfire if you’re not careful, often treading a very fine line between appearing friendly and simply being offensive. What’s more, it’s increasingly becoming a mistake most commonly associated with English speakers. Dr Ghada Khattab, a lecturer in phonetics, explains: “The reason one might be less likely to hear a German ‘putting on’ an Italian accent in Italy is because they are likely to be speaking in Italian.”

So the advice is pretty clear. Before jetting off to exotic locations or doing business in another language, try to learn at least a few local phrases that will get you in with the locals without making a fool of yourself. And if even the thought of learning a simple ‘Bonjour, ça va?’ makes you a little nervous, then there are great multilingual translation services all across the world, like Lingo24, Inc., that are happy to help you avoid those awkward linguistic potholes. 

If you haven't seen the video, click below to hear Joey Barton's French accent:


About the author: Christof Schneider

Christof Schneider joined Lingo24, Inc. in 2004 to support clients and the team with his workflow and technical expertise. He has a degree in Philosophy and Translation, and has worked as a translator and consultant, as well as teaching Technology and Localization skills at Auckland University. He has been deeply involved in the integration of technology into Lingo24, Inc.’s workflows and helped with the development of Coach, the translation technology platform. Follow Christof Schneider on:

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