Hooked on Phonics

You all know that I’m a perpetual French student; it’s how I justify to the French government my need to stay in their country every year. In fact, I’m now on my fourth semester of French classes here, the third time at the highest level they teach at my school. I truly enjoy both my grammar class and my French culture seminars. There’s just one class that I simply cannot stand:


Phonetics class is where I spend 5 hours a week, every other week, sitting in a soundproofed cubicle, wearing headphones, repeating French sentences … over and over and over … and then listening to a recording of my voice saying these things … over and over and over. It’s a quixotic quest to improve what Michel continues to assure me is a charming American accent. (Of course, I have to take that compliment with a grain of salt, since he’s not exactly a unbiased observer.) Phonetics class is, simply put, a torturous experience … but it’s necessary. I recently had an experience that comically demonstrates why.

Friday afternoon, I took my Swedish friend Helena to my new favorite Paris sweetshop, Sugar Daze. We ordered a few cupcakes and some coffee and sat down to chat and catch up with each other. Incidentally, Paris schools were on fall break this week, so the children of Sugar Daze’s owner, Cat, were hanging out in the store as well. At one point, Helena and I started talking about our phonetics classes, I pulled out a page of my phonetics exercises, and I started reading them aloud. That’s when Cat’s adorable, bilingual five(?)-year-old daughter — who apparently had been listening to us — interrupted in a completely serious, inquisitive tone:

“Why are you speaking Spanish?”


Classic! I just couldn’t stop laughing!

And voilà, folks: a case in point for why phonetics classes are in – di – spen – sable (pronounced with the proper French accent, stress, and rhythm, please)!


Back to the soundproofed cubicle.

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Oh là là! Where’s my baguette?

Yes, I’ve spent three semesters learning French in a rigorous academic setting here in Paris, but there are still those moments when I just have to fake it … like hanging out last night in a bar with French college students, or sitting around the dinner table with my French family, or taking an oral exam. Truth be told, I understand what they’re saying to me SO much less than they think I do, but I put on a good act!

So, go pour a glass of red, grab that baguette, sit back, and enjoy this little gem a friend found on the Internet:

And don’t worry if you can’t quite make out what she’s saying about Americans in Step Four. You don’t really have to understand it—just shake your head and cuss a little!

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved (not the video, of course … if only I were so talented)


As an English-speaker living in France, I know what it’s like to be in a room full of people speaking French, not understanding everything that’s being said. You hear the “sound” of the language, peppered here and there with words and phrases that are familiar; you struggle to put it all together and make sense of the situation. Here’s a brilliant take on what it must sound like for a non-English speaker to listen to us speak our language. Bravo to the writers, the director, and the actors in this excellent short film!

© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved