Je suis un rock star
Je avais un residence
Je habiter la
A la south of France
Partir with me?
And come and rester la
With me in France.
You don’t have to know much French to know that that’s not French. It is, at best, a string of uninflected French words shoe-horned into a pattern of English syntax. Enough to make any true speaker of French squirm.
The thing is Bill Wyman probably knew that, too. As the recipient of a decent post-War British education, he almost certainly knew some French. So why did he mangle it so badly in this song?
Unfortunately, I knew the answer as soon as I heard the song. Compulsory French lessons in Northern England in the 1970s were far from the most popular item in the curriculum. A lot of my classmates wanted nothing to do with “that Froggy stuff” (though they weren’t always as polite as that about it). Frog-leg eating, onion-selling, garlic-stinking foes for more than a millennium were, it seemed, the perfect foil for forging a British identity. “Froggies At It Again,” screamed the newspaper headlines at the slightest contretemps over the Channel. Learn their language? No thanks. Have you seen what they do to snails?
But we had to learn it. It was part of the curriculum. That didn’t mean, though, that we had to acquiesce to all its absurdities. Those weird (i.e. non-British) vowel sounds, for example. Not doing those. A rolled /r/? Get out of here, Pierre. Pronouncing French as though it was English became a badge of honour, a symbol of resistance against the encroachment of French into our lives. Bill Wyman’s flouting of French grammar fits this pattern.
I happened to be in Chile at the time Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer, the “Wedding of the Century,” or la boda del siglo as the local media had it. To mark the occasion, they interviewed the British ambassador to Santiago. He spoke Spanish with the most excruciating British accent I have ever heard. Just like my classmates. “OK,” he seemed to communicate, “I’ll speak the language but don’t think for a moment I’m going to let it change my identity. See how badly I pronounce it?”
Studying to be a language teacher, I heard about the “Critical Period Hypothesis,” saying basically that if you don’t learn a language before puberty, you will never learn it properly. The consensus at the time was that, though it may not be true about language learning in general, it certainly seemed to apply to pronunciation: it is pretty rare for adult foreign language learners to develop native-like pronunciation (whatever that is! See Skye’s and Donna’s articles in this Think Tank). It didn’t take me long to develop a personal hypothesis that this was, at least in part, because of psychological resistance to the threat to identity posed by a foreign language. Especially for teenagers, like my classmates, whom we all know are experiencing “identity issues.”
I’m not just thinking of national identity here. Identity as a member of a peer group or friendship-group is always salient among teenagers (and others!). In the case of my long-ago classmates, not being French was clearly a part of their group identity as much as their national one, but their primary concern was probably to fit in with their mates, not to stand out by embracing the frog, and be true to their identity as a member in good standing of their peer group.
I see signs of this in my own students who, when speaking in class, preface almost every English sentence with a Japanese word “eto,” usually translated as “Well . . .” It seems to me that they are saying to their classmates: “Just because I’m saying something in English, don’t think this makes me any less Japanese, any less worthy of being included in your in-group.” This may not be conscious. I suspect the resistance is mainly unconscious but, if I am right, this resistance may be one of the reasons why learning to pronounce words without a distinctively Japanese consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel pattern can be an uphill struggle for many of them.
Time, and our understanding, have moved on. The Critical Period Hypothesis has now been replaced with the idea of “sensitive periods,” during which the brain is particularly sensitive to certain kinds of developmentally important input. The end of the sensitive period for pronunciation can be attributed to diminution of the brain plasticity that makes pronunciation learning seem so effortless in a child. Diminution but not a total absence, Dehaene (2020, p. 103) tells us. We still have some plasticity even after a sensitive period has ended. It just takes more effort than it used to. More effort and the right conditions. Conditions such as feeling less of a threat to identity from the new language?
I recently checked the literature to see what there was to substantiate the hypothesis I had developed in my own mind about identity and FL pronunciation. While it is often noted in pronunciation handbooks, such as Kenworthy (1990) and Celce-Murcia et al. (2010), that “threat to identity” could be one of the issues, along with age, gender, and attitude to the language, that impedes pronunciation learning, it seems to be a difficult topic on which to collect empirical evidence. This is perhaps because of the growing understanding that asking people to report on the reasons why they do things is a hugely unreliable approach to understanding unconscious psychological mechanisms (Evans, 2010, pp. 174-175). Guiora (1990) reports on his attempts to get around this limitation by using alcohol, hypnosis, and Valium to relax students. In their relaxed state, their foreign language pronunciation became “native-like.” In explaining this result, he uses “language identity” and “language ego,” to posit that mimicking the pronunciation of a foreign language can feel like a threat to social and cultural identity. This, in turn, leads to resistance.
It’s possible, then, that my partial hypothesis was partially right after all: pronunciation can be difficult to modify because, consciously or not, it is a marker of identity. A pity I didn’t patent the idea years ago, and then I could have retired to my residence in the south of France.
Stephen M. Ryan est professeur d’anglais à Sanyo Gakuen University. In n’a pas de residence a la South of France.