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Linguistic and Cultural Challenges of Foreign Correspondents

An interview with NPR's Eleanor Beardsley

Interview conducted by François Grosjean

Foreign correspondents join a long list of special bilinguals. They lead their lives with two or more languages—like regular bilinguals—but their work also puts them in a unique relationship with their languages and cultures. They have to keep in mind those back home who will listen to them, or read their articles, most of whom may not know the language and the culture of the country they are working in. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR correspondent in Paris, is a well known and much appreciated voice on public radio in the United States. She has kindly accepted to answer a few of our questions and we thank her wholeheartedly.

You are bilingual in English and French and have lived in France many years. What are the advantages this brings you as a foreign correspondent?

The advantages of being bilingual are that you can read all the newspapers, listen to the radio, watch TV, talk to people, and really know what's going on in a society. Also you can travel to other countries with completely different cultures (where people also speak that language) and it's like having a direct entry into it.

An example of this was when I covered the Tunisian revolution. I arrived on the last day of the dictator, my first time in the country, but was able to talk to everyone because they spoke French. It was very strange finding myself operational and being able to converse and communicate with people in what would have ordinarily been a foreign, Arabic-Muslim society.

Are there any disadvantages at all in being bilingual/bicultural when compared to foreign correspondents who are not anchored as fully in a foreign language and culture?

I don't think there's really a disadvantage except perhaps that things begin to seem normal as you "go native." So maybe you don't recognize a story that someone who is very foreign to the place would recognize. Certain cultural and societal differences no longer stand out as much.

When you travel as a journalist and you don't speak the language, you usually have an interpreter. Which is fine, too, because sometimes as a complete outsider you can have interesting ideas for stories and things hit you in a different way. And of course we can't speak every language!

How hard is it to prepare a report on something typically French (e.g. the almost monarchical political system in France) for a U.S. audience that may not know anything about it?

It's not too hard. I just try to imagine how to make it interesting for a US audience that doesn't know the subject. I ask myself what would make it relevant for them. Usually I try to compare things to something similar in the U.S. If I am trying to understand a topic, I usually start with a good interview with someone who knows the field. I find this person often by following French media. A good interview often gets you into a topic and gives you further ideas about it. And then things build up and you can think of a scene to put in your story, and so on.

Are there some topics your "French side" would love to report on, but you don't, as you know that they wouldn't be well-received back in the States?

There aren't really any reports that would not be well-received in the U.S., but they might just be a bit pointless. On the other hand, there are some things I feel myself wanting to talk to the French about. For example, if I were a journalist targeting a French audience, I would do a story on the absurdity of closing down the country—public schools, businesses, government—for religious holidays, and at the same time touting your secularism.

Now, this story might fall flat in the US. However, I did allude to it in a piece I did on the excess of school vacations in France. I did that one for American audiences. But the people who seemed to appreciate it the most were ex-pats living in France!

Are there still some things about France where you need help deciphering them after so many years?

There are still plenty of things I don't know about France, but I usually just ask a question and then begin to research it. I don't think I really need help deciphering things. At this point, I feel I know how the French think and what they think about different topics. In addition, as my husband is French—I can always ask him! Or even my 11-year-old son, who is growing up French and American.

When recording your reports, you have to deactivate your French as best as possible. Do you find this difficult to do?

I don't have to deactivate my French when I record, but there are some words or expressions that we have in English that are French in origin and these I now find very difficult to say. Like "déjà vu." This is because the "vu" is mispronounced in English—we pronounce it as "vous" (we don't have the French "u" sound). So I have to choose —do I say it the French way or the American way? If you say it the American way, the meaning is "already you" instead of "already seen." But it would sound weird to say it the correct French way with Americans. On the other hand, I don't have a hard time with "savoir faire" because it sounds about the same in both languages. So usually I tailor my pronunciation to my audience.

Of course, if you do insert French into your reports on purpose (e.g. to talk about something typically French), how do you then get your audience to understand what you have just said (e.g. translate, explain, etc.)?

If I put French in my report, I usually have to translate it. Sometimes listeners like to hear you speak French, they like to hear you interacting in the foreign language. But it's usually translated or explained, unless it's something obvious like "Bonjour Monsieur" or "Merci beaucoup." And with names, sometimes I don't pronounce French names to an English-speaking person as I would to a French speaking person.

Have friends and colleagues back home ever told you that after so many years you are starting to "sound French" in your radio reports, both in content and form? If so, how do you take it?

I love this question! No, no one has ever told me I sound French when speaking English. However, when Americans hear me speaking French they think I sound French! But a native French speaker always knows I'm not French. What I usually get is a polite, "Do I hear a little accent?" It becomes a compliment when someone thinks I'm Canadian from time to time. But mostly they ask me if I'm English or American.

Something I get a lot from Americans is: "Do you have a southern accent in French?" This is because I'm from the South and have a southern accent in English. I always tell people that when an English speaker is speaking French you can't tell the difference between someone from Great Britain and the United States—it's the Anglo accent that comes through!

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo of a microphone from Shutterstock.

François Grosjean's website.

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