We need to make a detour through Japanese to put words on the complex one feels when speaking a foreign language. Yet, we know how the French doubt their abilities to speak in another language: fear of sounding ridiculous, fear not to be good enough, fear of pronounciation, intonation or agreement errors. This stress is called yoko meshi that is to say “eating a meal sideways”, unpractical indeed!
In order to speak a foreign language, one must accept to become someone else, as pointed out by Haruki Murakami. The voice is altered and the vocabulary (at least at the beginning) determines what one can say and the jokes one can make. A Spanish friend of mine told me her classmates laughed at the sound of the French “an”, “in”, “oin”, etc. Similarly in high school we practiced imitating ducks to pronounce the Russian letter Ы right.
Some professors go oud of their ways to solve those issues. A Chinese professor has her students sing to better hear tones. The Tomatis methodology, named after its creator, trains the ear to new frequencies, on the premise that each language would have its own frequencies.**
If the analysis on the frequency differences is intuitively right, we ought to be careful regarding the conclusions to draw. It is not impossible for a French person to learn how to speak a French-accent free English, as it is not automatically easier for a Russian person who covers the whole array of frequencies to learn foreign languages. Learning a language is directly linked with the amount of efforts produced and the exposure to the language.
However, people often keep their accent decades after having moved to their adoptive country. It is a way to maintain a trace of their identity, according to my Spanish linguistics professor at UBC (University of British Columbia, Canada). Learning a foreign language is thus an exercice of acculturation and language professors have a lot of psychological strings to play with!
* If some readers are Japanese speakers, I’d be glad to have a comment on the origine of the phrase.
** The analysis is based on the study of the consonnants. Here for details: www.tomatis.com/en