I shall say this only once, beware the accidental accent

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Joey Barton has been mocked for his faux French accent, but why do so many English speakers put on accents in other countries? Chris Bond reports.

IF the BBC sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo!’ ever makes a comeback then the producers could do worse than find room for Joey Barton.

The English footballer, currently plying his trade in France, has been lampooned after conducting a press conference in which he blended his natural Scouse twang with a comedy French accent, his neatly trimmed moustache and head-nodding mannerisms only adding to the amusing spectacle.

It has been dubbed “Bartonese” and the player, who was speaking to French journalists following his league debut for Marseille, took the ribbing in good humour by posting “Good moaning” to his 1.7 million Twitter followers the next day.

Whether it was a deliberate wind up done in jest, or simply an ex-pat trying to fit in with his new surroundings and unwittingly sounding a bit silly, is a matter of opinion, but Barton isn’t the first footballer who has ended up sounding a little lost in translation.

For many football fans, Barton’s faux pas evoked memories of the infamous (and hilarious) interview former England boss Steve McClaren gave in 2008, while in charge of Dutch side FC Twente, when he spoke with a Dutch accent. It’s not exactly the kind of accent you expect to hear coming from a Yorkshireman.

Footballers, though, aren’t the only ones guilty of this. How many times have you been in a café or restaurant abroad and heard an English tourist doing their very best Del Boy impersonation and ordering “horses doofers’ (rather than hors d’oeuvres), or speaking slowly and loudly in a desperate bid to be understood? I imagine quite a few.

This image of the Briton abroad has become an embarrassing, and well-founded, stereotype. But apart from showing up our lack of foreign language skills, why do some people adopt these bizarre accents?

Dr Karen Douglas, a reader in psychology at Kent University, believes it can, in part, be explained by what is known as “speech accommodation”, where people adapt their accent and intonation depending on who they are speaking to. “Sometimes in conversations people adapt their speech style, but they often do it on a subconscious level so they don’t realise they’re doing it,” she says.

“In our everyday conversations we do subtly change our intonation and our accents become more formal or informal depending on who we’re speaking to. So we’re constantly adapting our accents depending on the situation.”

The problem is this doesn’t always work.

“People can sound like they’re being patronising and sarcastic and even though they’re trying to make themselves understood it can backfire, which seems to be the case with Joey Barton, because he seems like he’s taking the mickey even if he’s not.”

Kim Stephenson, a researcher on the impact of accents, says even today with closer European integration we still assume other people will speak English. “Language skills are very much part of the continental way of life whereas they aren’t in Britain. Because we’re an island that once had an empire it’s still assumed that other people will speak English. And a lot of them do, if you go to major cities in Europe and countries like Holland and Switzerland most people will be able to speak English.”

Not all Englishmen turn into a Basil Fawlty character when speaking a foreign language, as Prince William proved last year when he delivered a speech in French at a military ceremony in Quebec. But this tends to be the exception rather than the norm.

Stephenson says there is still a tendency among Britons to speak louder or adopt what they think is an appropriate accent.

“You get English people speaking with a kind of vocal shrug because they think it sounds French, even though it doesn’t and it sounds horrible to the French themselves.”

At this point I must confess that I, too, am guilty of putting on a French accent a few years ago when I was in a restaurant in 
Paris with my wife.

Unlike me, she speaks fluent French and when the waiter 
took our order she answered in French. He on the other hand spoke English with a French accent and when he turned 
to me I replied, in my best Inspector Clouseau voice, “no starter for me,” which drew a quizzical look from the waiter 
and reduced my wife to a fit of giggles.

It was wholly unintentional, but perhaps the moral of the story is we should work harder at speaking languages – because a little bit of effort can go a 
long way.