American writers trying to explain themselves in French

Ta-Nehisi Coates. Picture source: By David Shankbone (Shankbone) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is this super-cogent writer whose essays I love to read.  His second book, Between the world and me, won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and he was recently awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.  He took the MacArthur money and moved to Paris, as any reasonable person would.  Here is a wonderful video of him in the midst of trying to learn French.  I can completely relate to his pain.  As he puts it: he sounds like an intelligent guy in English, but in French…different story.  That’s totally the story of my life these days–I think I’m fairly articulate in English, but when I try to explain the simplest things in French, I sound like a bumbling idiot.  Oh, well–practice makes perfect.  I hope.

The video:

  • les réparations ( reparations.

7 thoughts on “American writers trying to explain themselves in French”

  1. I agree with MELewis, and actually Ta-Nehisi Coates comes through as pretty quick and bright in French – in the sense that what he has assimilated up to now comes out naturally, he’s aware of what’s askew and he has a relatively good accent … for an English speaker 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It was meant to be a positive comment 🙂 There must be something about Anglo-Saxon native pronunciation that puts a spanner in the works for acquiring a “perfect or near-perfect” accent in other languages. I know a great many English speakers who are technically fluent in other languages, but their Anglo accent never quite disappears. For some reason, it doesn’t happen for native speakers of many other languages. Can linguistics explain it?


  2. If you’re going to ask me as a linguist, I must contest the facts. I don’t have any cross-linguistic data on the extent to which people’s L1 accent does/does not get conquered in L2. I’m pretty skeptical about your claim that it’s not a problem for non-Anglophones, though. As I said, I don’t have numbers, but I did grow up around Hungarians, Russians, Germans, Romanians, and Arabs whose accents never disappeared in English, despite having been in the US since after the war (which I guess was about 15 years at the time that I knew them).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Curative Power of Medical Data

JCDL 2020 Workshop on Biomedical Natural Language Processing


Criminal Curiosities


Biomedical natural language processing

Mostly Mammoths

but other things that fascinate me, too


Adventures in natural history collections

Our French Oasis


ACL 2017

PC Chairs Blog

Abby Mullen

A site about history and life

EFL Notes

Random commentary on teaching English as a foreign language

Natural Language Processing

Université Paris-Centrale, Spring 2017

Speak Out in Spanish!

living and loving language




Exploring and venting about quantitative issues

%d bloggers like this: