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  1. OES

    OES New Member

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    Portraying Characters with a French Accent

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by OES, May 29, 2020.

    I have two characters who are in French-speaking Africa who dialogue quite a bit with the MC who is North American.

    This means their first language is their West African language, the second (in which they are very fluent) is French, and English is a third language. They are quite proficient in English (say B1 or B2 on the International scale).

    I've written dozens of scenes with them, but in the second draft I want to focus on making their speech believable. So far, in the first draft, I've had them drop in french words parfois, being careful not to do it too much as it get obnoxious. Also, not relying too much on phrasal verbs, which, it seems, mostly native speakers master.

    Any other tips for making their French accents believable? Another consideration is that they appear and speak a lot throughout the book, so anything annoying (such as spelling out their diction phonetically "are yu going to..ah..mit with me thes evenING? Or do You av someTHING to do?) won't work. I'm looking for subtlety.

    Thanks.
     
  2. Friedrich Kugelschreiber

    Friedrich Kugelschreiber Contributor Contributor

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    Well, I would recommend listening to French people speaking English and pick up on their accent if you haven't done so already. If you want the accents to be authentic, that's probably the best way.
    However, why are they speaking with a French accent, as opposed to the accent of their native languages?
     
    OES likes this.
  3. OES

    OES New Member

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    Thanks and good question.

    These scenes are actually based on some real experiences I've been through. When I was in French-speaking Africa, the French accent came through much stronger, to my ears, than their Boulé. This is of course very subjective, since I have heard more French spoken than Boulé, probably because, apart from this trip, I've heard close to no Boulé.

    But I'm having trouble replicating their speech patterns in dialogue (the trip was twelve years ago). In fact, I'm pretty bad at this in general; despite having two French students the last month, I haven't picked up on many of their idiocracies, apart from not pronouncing H's and using posessives to describe attributes ("I have fear"), which I am familiar with since Spanish works the same way.
     
  4. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    I can't say much here because I only know one language and my main exposure to French accents is from Monty Python, but I think you don't need to write their accents in order to write dialogue, but as you said in the last post it's more about the patterns of speech. Really a semantic thing, but it's what occurs to me.
     
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  5. davcha

    davcha Member

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    I'm french.

    And you can very well realize it when listening to me.

    Once, I had a presentation to do for my PhD, in front of many people who were very fluent in english (more than me). For some of them, english were their native language. At some point, I said something about the count of some stuff. But instead of "count", I said something that sounded like "cunt".

    I basically have "two modes" when talking in english:
    (1) either I'm trying to make an effort to have a better accent, and usually it's worse.
    (2) either I make no effort and I sound very frenchy.

    In mode (1), you'll hear a lot of "L" sounds. Without exageration, sometimes "really" could sound like "willy".
    In mode (2), basically, I will make absolutely no effort with the "R" sounds so they will sound like that: https://fr.forvo.com/search/r/fr/
    Moreover, still in (2) and "really", the "ea" will really sound like the "é" from éther in french: https://fr.forvo.com/search/%C3%A9ther/ followed by a "a": https://fr.forvo.com/search/a/fr/
     
  6. Cloudymoon

    Cloudymoon Member

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    Perhaps we could quickly knock up a porn script? :D:D:D
     
  7. Oxymaroon

    Oxymaroon Contributor Contributor

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    I find that accents represented in print tend to look overdone and phony. It's impossible to reproduce sound with any accuracy. Other than the occasional elided r or dropped h, I would try to show ES(T)L in word arrangement, gender designation, eccentric application of descriptive words, or the slightly odd use of a word in translation, such as 'moustache' for a cat's whiskers, or 'fed up' for having had enough to eat.
     
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  8. Lazaares

    Lazaares Senior Member

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    This, exactly. English's got words with various roots and from a set of synonyms you could easily choose the French-origin one. When you do this consistently it will bring a "French" chime to a character. Same can be done with German, which brings me to my second point.

    I learned Hungarian, then German, then English. I've a German accent in English. From my own experience your observation is valid. German always was closer to English for me; the same way French is closer to English than West-African languages and thus it's possible their brain switches to "French mode" when speaking/learning it, same as mine did with German.

    Hooking back to my initial advice; the accent I speak in English is riddled with a whole bunch of German words simply because they sound so English to me that I don't even realise they aren't.
     
  9. Oxymaroon

    Oxymaroon Contributor Contributor

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    ^^^ That's it, exactly.
    I used to teach ESL to adults, and the most common mistake, by far, is to use the first-learned version of a word that has a slightly, but not completely different form in another language. This is typically true of words with Latin or Greek roots.
    There is usually some awkwardness, even fluent speakers of a language learned later than about age 15 or so, in word order - adjectives before or after noun; subordinate clauses or phrases in a place that's not exactly wrong, but doesn't sound natural.
     
  10. Thorn Cylenchar

    Thorn Cylenchar Senior Member

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    I would have the characters occasionally just slip in a French word, phrase or saying, especially at times when they are excited, upset, ect.
    I have seen books where they try to write the accent and if the character is anything more than a side character with a few lines every dozen or so chapters I usually will give up on the book as I find it obnoxious. Best case scenario is I skip to the last chapter.
     
  11. Storysmith

    Storysmith Active Member

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    I'd mention the accent the first time each of them speaks. English isn't phonetic, so I wouldn't represent the accent in the words spoken, in the same way that native English speakers from different parts of the world wouldn't have their words written differently. Another option is to have them struggle to remember an unusual word. One solution that really annoys me is to have them speak perfect English, except for a few extremely common words that they mysteriously never learnt, using words such as "oui"or "bonjour" instead.
     
  12. Richach

    Richach Contributor Contributor

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    I do not think trying to portray a character with an accent is advisable. It opens a can of worms IMO. These are some points to consider.

    1. @davcha (our french member) does not write in a french accent!
    2. It would sound phoney IMO.
    3. It draws attention to a specific detail that is not particularly relevant and in so doing, detracts away from the story. Remember the reader must remain immersed and engaged with the story at all times. Don't pull the reader away because you are not sure they get the character is French/African.
    4. It might be misconstrued by some readers (french and other nationalities) as the author poking fun (nice way of putting it!) at foreign nationals.

    I could go on and on but my point is, just tell the story and don't detract from it in any way.

    If you really feel a need to make them seem more french/african then you could drop in the occasional word. Markus Zuzak manages it very well in 'The Book Theif' but it was masterfully done. I think another issue is that the characters are french african so that just gets more confusing. Trust yourself when you have told the reader first time, they will remember, promise!
     
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  13. Oxymaroon

    Oxymaroon Contributor Contributor

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    This may be one of those rare situations where you're advised to "tell, not show". :)
     
    Richach likes this.

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