Raised in Iowa, I was a new lecturer puzzled by the French university system. The first course they asked me to teach was a phonetics class. This was unfortunate for everyone concerned, since I was totally ignorant about phonology as an academic discipline. The transcription alphabet was as foreign to me as Cyrillic; back then, as far as I knew, a diphthong was a kind of sexy underwear. Fricatives and labials sounded kind of racy, too.
Fact was, though, the class had nothing to do with anything stimulating. Rather, I was supposed to inspire a group of 45 sullen French students (most of them dressed in black, who came to class, it seemed, as something to do between cigarettes) to repeat after their teacher: “Why is Peter (Pee-tuh) laughing (loffing)?” and “Cecily, this porridge is lovely!”
Every example was jolly good! Flipping through the book, I couldn’t believe it. Why ask me? Timidly I approached the professor who supervised the course, and reminded him that our accents back in the U.S. didn’t quite sound that way. “I speak English,” I said, “but I don’t speak that kind of English.”
“Ah, I knooow,” he said, drawing out the diphthong like a piece of toffee. (The syllable lasted 12 seconds, I swear!) He looked at me with pity, and went on to explain that the Received Pronunciation was indeed the target for learners, while sounding like an American was another thing entirely. My presence in the department was proof of their tolerance, of their willingness to open their doors to different types of people. I was a part—yes, me!—of the richness of the institution. He continued in this vein for several minutes, and upon leaving his office, I offered him my thanks, which he accepted. He was definitely an asshole.
(Excuse me: an arsehole.)
English abstract on Cairn International Edition