Texas twang lessons: de rigueur in Paris

If someone in a beret saunters up to you on the streets of Houston and says politely, "Pardon me, but where is -- how you say -- the Astrodome, y'all?" Or, perhaps, somewhere in midtown Manhattan, "Excuse me, deah, maism which bus do I take to Bloomie's?" don't be alarmed.

He or she probably has just graduated from the only American English school in Paris which not only teaches that peculiar and elusive form of the idiom but offers accents as well. The school employs a Texan, a New Yorker, and a former Atlanta resident as well as a full complement of other native speakers with more all-purpose accents.

And the school is enjoying a boom. About 1,500 students a year pay 27 francs (about $6.75) an hour to take the classes. These classes are a sideline of the American Center, an institution that introduces American artists to the French, and vice versa.

Fluency in English can help one get a job in Paris, where many firms prefer bilingual employees, according to Sylvie Seiris, director of the program. And a specifically American approach comes in handy, according to Alexander Mehdevi, managing director of the American Center.

"If someone has to go to Texas on business, it's much better to get a teacher with a Texas accent than someone with a stiff upper lip at the British Institute ," he says.

But students also come for fun. As Mr. Mehdevi puts it, studying "American English in an American atmosphere" appeals to students who may have begun learning English in the more structured world of French high schools -- which one teacher characterizes as "pedantic," with not much emphasis on speaking the language. The American Center uses the Audio-Lingual Method, which relies heavily on oral drills and discussion.

Besides, says Maryanne Murdock, teacher of the New England accent, "American English is more interesting." She can't really be accused of chauvinism, since she is married to a Frenchman. "Everything comes from America -- all the fads. They're more interested in America than England," she says.

Indeed, taking a walk down the fashionable Boulevard Saint Germain, the American visitor will feel a strange nostalgia. Women are wearing the hiked-up pony tails popular in the 1950s, white T-shirts -- the kind with nothing written on them -- and full skirts. There are posters for Hitchcock and Marx Brothers movies.

But perhaps the students' motivation lies more simply in a desire to communicate. One afternoon in Maryanne Murdock's fourth-level class (there are five levels, and one can learn American English from scratch in about four 10 -week terms) the students were concentrating hard. The subject was discrimination.

Said one young man thoughtfully, "There is discrimination in Paris, among the sexes, all along the day." Maryanne made a note to bring up "between the sexes" and "all day long" later on, but let him keep talking.

"Is this the worst kind of discrimination in Paris?" she asked. "The most important?" That made him frown.

"I sink so," he said finally, and the discussion continued, about racial, sex , and class discrimination. Acting more like a talk show host than a grammar teacher, Maryanne kept the conversation percolating -- and controversial.

"Discrimination against North Africans more than blacks?" she queried. "I thought there was not so much discrimination against blacks when I first came to Paris, but I don't know. . . . What do you think?"

She looked to a blonde, who dodged behind Bardot-esque bangs for a moment and protested, "I'm too sleepy." But the blonde, who teaches in an elementary school , finally launched into an account of a little boy whose parents are immigrant Algerian workers, a group discriminated against in France. The boy, she said, got along fine with the other children at the school, but not with their parents.

A third student talked of friends in an interracial marriage. It was the kind of conversation one sometimes has on long train rides in foreign countries, when, despite grammatical, syntactical, and other errors, one manages to discuss the great issues of life. It is hardly what you expect in a language classroom, but it seems to work. Everyone leaned forward in his seat, talking excitedly. With only a few pauses, several Gallic shrugs, and the small explosive puffs of the lips that say, "Beats me" in French, two hours sped by. Even the blonde woman had finally awakened. And the class was just as interested in going back over its grammatical errors.

"Very good," said Maryanne Murdock as she sent them on their way. "Next week: urban problems and terrorism."

And if one can talk about those, one should have no problem finding Bloomingdale's.

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