Sunday, June 05, 2011

Bwadli Coopair speaksa da Fraintch

A random flipping through YouTube brought me to a page full of videos of Bradley Cooper in France, speaking French with various interviewers as he promotes "The Hangover Part II." Cooper's French interlocutors seem largely impressed that he speaks French at all, and some American commentators coo over his "perfect French."

Euh... non.

I don't want to diss a fellow Hoya, especially since Cooper himself isn't going around bragging about his French skills, but I do want to say that the fawning is a bit much: Cooper's French is decent, but he makes some cringe-worthy mistakes (at one point referring to fellow male co-stars as actrices, for example, and not knowing the French word for "subtitling").

From a language teacher's point of view, I'd give Cooper high marks for listening comprehension: he's capable of handling full-speed French in a variety of pressure situations (radio interview here, for example, and a more formal TV interview here). But his responses are full of errors, many of them quite basic. He does, however, speak French at a respectable speed and doesn't trip over himself too often. I get the impression that he's not up on current French slang (then again, neither am I: my own knowledge is stuck in the late 80s and early 90s); the above-linked radio station interview shows him struggling to think of what to say when he's asked about French curse words.

I suppose the world is still shocked when a mere American manages to speak another foreign language with any competency. In Korea, such surprise is routine, perhaps because of a combination of cultural expectations related to foreigners, and a Korean's modest notion of where Korea ranks globally: surely no one would bother learning our language, right? That sort of surprise makes less sense in France, where Franco-American cultural exchanges have been ongoing for centuries.

It could simply be that Cooper whipped out his French after having played things close to the vest. The fact that he's doing this now may indicate that his agent (or the marketing team for "The Hangover Part II") thought that this was the time to bust a move, linguistically speaking.

In any case, I congratulate Brad on demonstrating a decent level of competence in French. If I had the chance to speak with him, Hoya to Hoya, I'd say he should brush up on noun genders, build his vocabulary a bit, and watch that grammar. In the meantime, for those who want to hear an American speaking impeccable French, I'll once again link to this always-impressive video of Jodie Foster, whose French ability far outstrips mine.*

*UPDATE, 11/8/15: The original Jodie Foster interview is no longer available on YouTube (damned link rot), so here's another.



Charles said...

There seems to be an odd relationship between how well someone speaks Korean and how often (and how soon) they get praised for it. That is, anyone who speaks even a modicum of Korean will be told, having opened their mouths and uttered precisely five syllables, that they are "practically Korean." Once you reach a certain level, though, these sort of comments drop off. I think part of it is the shock of realization that this foreigner in front of them not only speaks Korean but speaks it well, but I also think that on some level they realize how patronizing the "You're practically Korean now!" comment really is. People no longer say things like this to me. They do ask me how I learned to speak Korean, but only after having spoken with me for a while. It's a different sort of comment, less like patting a dog on the head and giving him a treat.

(Wow, that sounds terribly bitter, doesn't it? But it's not. It is just an observation from experience.)

What impressed me most about Jodie in that video was how she said "Times Square." For the longest time I rejected the idea of pronouncing English place names and other words the Korean way because "it sounds weird." But it's actually a pretty good indicator of how well you have adjusted to the Korean language. It's a gyopo tell as well--it can be a bit jarring to hear someone speak more or less perfect Korean and then drop a foreign word in a blatantly American accent.

The only other people who do this (or who try to do this) are Korean academics or professionals who are trying to sound intelligent, but usually the pronunciation is still a little off and they end up sounding like buffoons.

Kevin Kim said...

re: on being "practically Korean"

Yes, I've heard "한국 사람이 됐네" before. Usually uttered with a smile that I take to be more incredulous than complimentary.

re: such comments/compliments dropping off as you increase in skill

I agree, at least when it comes to the Korean context. I think it also depends on whom you hang with. In an academic environment like Seoul National, it's probably de rigueur for foreigners studying there to speak Korean well, so Korean profs and fellow students of the Hangukin persuasion are likely to take such skill for granted, as are relatives. (Which is how it should be, really.)

re: gyopo tells

I think I tend to do that in Korean, often to my detriment: pronounce English words with an American accent. I've tried to curb that tendency, however, because it can lead to real comprehension problems. The one I like to use in class is the pronunciation of "opera." The Korean rendering of the word is totally Continental: oh-peh-rah. When I ask a student whether she likes "ah'pruh," she usually has no idea what I'm saying.

A more personal example: I once asked a driver to take me to the Costco near Mokdong. He had no idea what the hell I was saying until I deliberately mispronounced the word as "Kohs-t'koh." When I originally said "Costco," he probably heard "Kaas-koh," and had no idea what I was referring to. Live and learn.

I take the issue of the "gyopo tell" to be separate from the issue of overall fluency (if I read you right, I think you do, too). A gyopo who speaks fluent Korean and American English can get away with that sort of abrupt switch in pronunciation, I think, and still be considered a fluent Korean speaker. Although she wasn't a gyopo in the "grew up in the States" sense, my mother certainly did the same thing as her English became fluent: she often preferred the US pronunciation of English words when talking with her friends in Korean, and even began to complain about Koreans in Korea who seemed unable to master "th," "v," "f," and other English sounds. The static arose, however, when she went back to Korea with us (i.e., Dad and us kids) in 1986, 1989, and the early 2000s, and tried using that same phonetic tactic with her cousins, most of whom had lived in Korea all their lives. I think she met with only partial success; they sometimes didn't understand when she broke into English.

re: academics sounding like buffoons

Strangely enough, I have a Swiss example of that. One of my profs at the University of Fribourg was a Swiss with a very proper genevois French accent. At one point she translated "Siècle des Lumières" as "Age of Enlightenment." The moment she uttered this phrase in English, a student started snickering: this guy was Swiss, but he had spent a few years abroad in English-speaking countries, and I think he was tickled by the prof's somewhat overly careful pronunciation. Madame wasn't amused; she was rarely amused by anything. The student's snickering quickly subsided under her withering glare. But the point had been made, and quite publicly, that she'd be better off sticking to her native French.

So yeah-- buffoon. I thought Madame was a pretentious ass, too.

Charles said...

This also deserves a reply, but I will most likely end up folding it into a future email, if that's OK with you.

In short, though: yes, with qualifications