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Paris Observation #2

I have no background in French beyond the words and phrases I've picked up by osmosis. Prior to the trip I took a look at Teach Yourself French in 24 Hours (not bad) and listened to a Pimsleur audio course (quite good). I worked on my accent, and learned some basics (pleasantries, ordering food, counting, telling time, and so on).

As a general travel precaution I tried not to look too much like a tourist, keeping such red flags as cameras, guidebooks, and maps tucked away in an attaché until they were needed, and not wearing jeans or sneakers.

When I walked into a store or restaurant I would greet the proprietor in French. I would use French exclusively until I ran out. To my chagrin and despite my attempts to adapt the Parisians frequently answered me in English.

How did they do it? Was it my accent? I know that my pronunciation is pretty poor when I deal with unfamiliar words, and I'm sure my grammar breaks down along with my confidence when I start to get beyond my depth, but I thought I at least had a nearly-native pronounciation of the basic greetings.

For that matter, how did they know I spoke English? Even if I bungled my "bonjour"s it feels unfair to me that so little could mark me as an English speaker in particular. Why not German? Italian? Spanish? We heard plenty of these languages in Paris. <sigh>


Somebody once told me it's the way we walk: Americans apparently have a distinctive lope that presumably comes from growing up in a wide-open country with plenty of elbow room rather than a cramped European city with narrow cobbled streets. Or something like that. However that may be, it's really hard for an American to pass as anything else; I suspect you'd have to live in a place for a while so that you bought your clothes there and picked up the local mannerisms.

Interesting. A Parisian acquintance told me that they can recognize a tourist and simply address all tourists in English initially, since more often than not that's their common language.

I can certainly recognize an accent in English which is different from mine, and can tell native from non-native speakers. I can identify certain foreign accents in spoken English. But I can't do it just on the basis of a "hello", and I don't think I could recognize a foreign visitor solely on the basis of their clothing or gait. I wonder, though. It would certainly be an interesting experiment.

What languagehat says is definitely true to some extent : I was walking into work the other day (I work in central London), and I realised suddenly that the two people in front of me were American tourists... before I overheard them speak (which confirmed it). Part of it was body language; American tourists definitely have a particular walk. Part of it was also dress; despite globalisation, there are a few tell-tale signs... That being said, it's hard to generalise. Anyway, 'guess the nationality' is a good game to play at airports or international railway stations ;).

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