Pas aussi atroce que ça !

La maîtrise de M. Kerry, candidat démocrate à la présidence des Etats-Unis, de la langue française, je veux dire. Vous êtes probablement en désaccord si vous vous attendez à des prouesses, mais personnellement, je suis habituée à pire.

On Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum links to an mp3 audio clip from Slate Magazine, in which John Kerry, visiting Haiti while campaigning, speaks a few words of French. According to Prof. Pullum, Kerry’s French is “atrocious”. Well, I have to disagree respectfully. Sure, the Mr Kerry on this clip doesn’t come up to the ankles of, say, Jean Jaurès, but first of all there are extenuating circumstances, and second, there’s more data available than just four seconds out of a 25-sec recording.

  1. Mr Kerry seems to be struggling not to drown in the crowd. Before switching to French, his English isn’t a shining example of fluency either. He keeps repeating “we should be doing more” before abandoning all attempts to get across another snippet of whatever he wants to say.
  2. Mr Kerry is not giving a speech in French but is just switching over from English to address some unknown person (probably the man whose voice, but not words, can be made out on the recording). Perfect fluency is difficult to maintain when jumping back and forth between languages. This is something I do all the time. My French is pretty good for a non-native speaker, my German still quite fluent (I’d say, still at native-speaker competency, but I’m a bit worried that I might not be using it enough), and as for my English, you are the judge. I don’t think I’m stretching things when I think of none of the three as “atrocious”. And yet, my brain can get confused when I have to switch extemporaneously. Sometimes I pull up an inappropriate language and don’t even realize until a few words later. Sometimes I get stuck and have to take a deep breath and reorganize my internal language access protocol.
  3. What Mr Kerry says — I agree with Prof. Pullum and disagree with the Slate Magazine — is “Vous êtes d’Haïti? [pause] D’accord. [pause] Bonne journée !”, and then maybe something else that gets drowned out by the crowd, or maybe the microphone picked up someone else speaking, well, I don’t know what, but not English. Now this doesn’t sound like the pinnacle of rhetoric, but politicians rarely do when figuratively patting a member of the public on the back. More to the point, it’s quite precisely what French politicians would do and say en faisant les marchés, ie when hanging out on open-air markets to “meet” the voters. Acknowledging some piece of information one’s interlocutor provides (maybe the town he is from, maybe he’s not precisely from Haiti, but travelled there for the campaign meeting) by saying “d’accord” (I agree / I’m okay with that) is particularly idiomatic. It may not prove all by itself Kerry’s grasp on French — very good French classes might address the point early on — but it’s exactly what French people would say. The expression used to amuse me quite a bit. Imagine you announce to your lover that you’re tired and are going to bed now (”je suis crevée, je vais aller me coucher”), and she replies by giving her permission. Which is what “d’accord” sounds like to someone not yet used to idiomatic French. On the other hand, the strange fricative at the end of “Haïti” is just weird. Maybe he hesitated between Haïti and Haïtien, maybe it’s an artifact, maybe he’s overdoing the pronunciation habit of the more bourgeois French to add an (affected-sounding) [x] at the end of words that end in vowels. This would fit with the social class of the French speakers he supposedly has been most exposed to.
  4. I have to admit, I am basing my judgement on more than just on this clip. On the TV news, I have heard Mr Kerry say a few sentences, two or three, in French to a French journalist. They were obviously unprepared, but a bit more complex than the exchange above. Mr. Kerry’s accent is a strong American English one (vowels too open and too much to the front; too many nasalized sounds etc.), by far not as good as, say, Dave’s. But his grammar was quite acceptable, and I would certainly call him fluent. Which is more than I’m used to from many of our politicians’ grasp on foreign languages. But not more than what I’d expect from someone who as a teenager regularly spent summers in France speaking French with his relatives.

Not that I want to negatively influence Mr. Kerry’s electoral prospects; apparently, the ability to speak French is a shameful defect he better hide. But let’s not (mis)overestimate the influence this modest site might conceivably have.

Edit: Right after publishing this post, I saw that Bill Poser (still on Language Log) has some additional remarks on the recording. He comments on the atrocious sound quality (as opposed to foreign language skills) the recording exhibits, and provides a noise-reduced version. My ears still hear “bonne journée” and not “je vais aider les Haïtiens”, but so be it.

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