„Do I hear an accent? “- raise your hand if you’ve been asked this before! I guess everyone who has lived abroad has been at the receiving end of this question!
So, what is this thing with having a foreign accent? And why do people obsess so much over it? Let’s elaborate!
A quick definition
The Cambridge dictionary describes it as follows: The way in which people in a particular area, country, or social group pronounce words.
He’s got a strong New York accent.
She’s French but she speaks with an impeccable English accent.
As these examples illustrate, it is not only the way we speak in our mother tongue (an American from Boston will have a different accent than a person from Texas), but also the way we speak in a foreign language.
Let’s focus on the phenomenon of the foreign accent!
Why do we have an accent in a foreign language?
When we are born we are capable of learning any language with its special sounds, intonation and rhythm. Over time we lose the ability to hear and say intonations and sounds different from our mother tongue. We make up for this incapability by using/transferring those from our mother tongue that are similar to the ones in the foreign language. They will not sound exactly the same and this difference is known as an accent.
Is having a foreign accent a bad thing?
Well, that depends! In a simple world, it doesn’t matter as long as people understand you. But is it that simple?
Some accents sound friendly, funny or even sexy whereas others sound harsh, heavy or aggressive. If your accent falls in the latter category, people might get a wrong impression of you. If worse comes to worst they might even have negative feelings towards you.
What happens when people (unintentionally) associate an accent with a certain stereotype or worse with a prejudice?
It can influence how you are perceived. How competent or even intelligent people think you are. As a result, an accent can affect your access to jobs, education, social interaction, simply your participation in everyday life.
It can go as far as being discriminated, if people have negative associations with your accents or the origin of your accent.
To illustrate this, here is what a study in the Netherland conducted. Shiri Lev-Ari (psycholinguist at the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen) asked non-native speakers to record simple statements in English. She asked the same of native English speakers.
When native English speakers rated the recordings for their truth content, they rated the speakers with the heaviest accents as least true, while native speakers were rated most true.
So, your accent might not only be unpleasant to some, but they might even consider you less trustworthy because of it.
Should you ask people about their accent?
That’s a tricky one. I guess it depends on two things
Who asks and how?
I can’t deny that I get curious when I hear a foreign accent in either German or English because I am interested in other cultures and where people come from. Do I always ask the person where they are from? Not necessarily. Some people get offended or don’t want to be made aware of their accent. And I totally understand where they are coming from.
Some people ask in a very condescending way. They are not necessarily curious where the other person is from but are mocking their accent. Others are just genuinely curious. They might have guessed where you are from and get excited because they like your country or have visited it.
How does the person with the accent feel about the accent?
If a person doesn’t care about having a foreign accent then it’s easy anyway. But not everyone is like that. Do you care that you have an accent? Do you want people to know you are from a different place or not? People should definitely be mindful before asking condescending questions. People are usually very aware of their accent and don’t always like to be asked about it. Others might not care at all. I usually wait till I have talked to the person for a bit. If I get a good vibe, I will most likely ask where they are from.
Is it possible to get rid of your accent? And if so, should you?
If a foreign accent can have such strong and negative implications, some would love to get rid of it. But is it possible to get rid of an accent? I’m sorry to break the news, but it is very hard to entirely get rid of your foreign accent. It’s hard, but I guess not completely impossible. To some people it comes easy/natural to figure out rhythm and sounds in another language. They are able to almost adapt an accent without people noticing that they are from somewhere else. Others have lived in a country for decades and still have a very strong accent.
So it definitely depends on a couple of different factors. Natural talent with languages, motivation or interest but also the age when you learn a language.
The older we get the more difficult it is to make a certain sound or even hear it. If you aren’t able to hear it, how are you supposed to imitate it. Rather difficult.
Even if you can come close to the perfect accent there might be just a tiny sound or vowel that gives you away eventually. Isn’t it frustrating that you might have talked for 10 minutes without anybody noticing that you are not a native speaker and then – boom – one small vowel and your “secret” is not so secret anymore.
Another thing that makes it quite hard to adapt an accent is the fact that there are usually so many accents in one country. There is a standard American accent in the USA or High German (Hochdeutsch) in Germany. Ideally you learn that. Nevertheless, it is not realistic especially if you live in one area of the country where they speak dialects. You might pick up different pronunciations etc. from different areas (the location where you live, movies, news, and so on) and might have a mix of accents that will never be right for one place.
My take on having a foreign accent
I haven’t been asked about my accent too often. That doesn’t mean I don’t have one but I live in a place where there are a lot of international people and people are used to having a lot of foreigners. So, it gets old and is not that interesting anymore.
When it comes to my own accent I’m always a bit more critical. As you might remember, I love languages and when I learn a language I aspire to come as close to perfection as possible. For me, a language is not only grammar, words and expressions but also pronunciation, melody and rhythm. It is almost impossible because unless you have lived a significant part of your (early) years in that country, grew up in a bilingual household or had professional training it is very hard to fully get rid of an accent.
I guess I’m just very critical with myself when it comes to accents. I don’t care too much if others have an accent as long as I can understand them.
Another thing I noticed when it comes to my own accent is that it changes depending on who I talk to. I don’t know if it’s just me or if it is a common thing. If I speak to a non-English native my accent is more neutral whereas if I talk to an American, I try a lot harder to have an American accent (which of course, I don’t succeed).
And I know some people say an accent is actually part of our personality or even identity. And that we shouldn’t entirely get rid of it. For me that is not necessarily true. I don’t feel like it gives me more or less identity. If at all, I feel like adapting an accent gives me the chance to immerse more in the culture. Even get into the way of thinking and the mindset.
In any case, an accent shouldn’t define us. Above all, an accent is a sign of bravery. Bravery because you made the conscious choice to immerse yourself into a new language and culture. Maybe even a new life in a new country.
Let me know your thoughts on foreign accents in the comments.