I occasionally feel inspired enough (or silly enough) to run a psychological experiment at work. Everyone knows I’m pretty much bilingual (English/French) and they are often reluctant to speak to me in my native English. So I’ll speak English with a French accent, and I observe the difference. Once I start speaking in this way, the likelihood that I will be replied to in English is massively increased. Indeed, it is in these circumstances that I have heard colleagues speak English for the first time. It seems to break down a psychological barrier based on their school experience.

Perhaps because at school when they are learning, they are with others who all have appalling accents to begin with, and in my experiment they rediscover that security of being just like their peers and all speaking poorly. Perhaps the situation also subconsciously takes them back a few years, and they can better remember simple vocabulary, that which is the most embarassing to not have at your fingertips and which often blocks phrase formation. So conversation flow improves.

Incidentally, when I started to improve my accent in school at about 14-15 years old, I was often teased by others in the class. Perhaps one thing they didn’t like was the security they had hiding behind the poor accent standard that everyone had set, allowing them to not have to make too much of an effort. Perhaps they just thought I was a bit of a language nerd.

It doesn’t work the other way : speaking French with an English accent can sometimes cause those who have little language learning under their belt to misunderstand what is otherwise a syntactically correct sentence. Such as l’Oiseau found from what sounds to me to be a very snobbish and ignorant waiter. It’s a lot harder to understand someone with a foreign accent, but people should make the effort a bit more often. That’s what language learning is all about, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

My experiment is great fun, but finally when I revert to regular English I lose everyone again. It never helps that they know I understand exactly what they’re saying in French as it makes them incredibly lazy. Then again, maybe they feel too much pressure to speak my language as well as I speak theirs, but that’s just a “bloquage” in their minds even though it’s a thought that’s far from mine. Sadly, I’m not in a position to catalyse their language learning. The people you learn most about a language from are those that leave you in a situation where you have no choice but to communicate on their terms.