We all know by now how big a deal accent becomes when you throw a load of different nationalities together (see Accent part 1). Increasingly (to my secret delight), francophones have been telling me how I have a “joli accent“, or even better, not much of one at all. But in fact, I now see the importance of actually keeping an accent. And it’s not even to retain a bit of exoticism or charm, but for purely practical reasons.
A Frenchie once told me, “It’s essential that you don’t lose your accent completely. That way, when you make mistakes, we can forgive you. If you have no accent, we won’t.” A bit of a harsh way of putting it, but hey, he was French. My own experience in China, where I look and more or less sound like a local, has taught me that having something that marks you out immediately as foreign can be a good thing. When shopkeepers address me with simple questions which I can’t understand, I do just literally look like a simpleton.
So what makes one accent attractive, and another offensive? Naturally it depends on individual taste, but outside of England the English one seems pretty universally popular I’m happy to report. Even the chavvy English accent seems, for some mystical reason, to wield a sort of quaint charm. So whether David Beckham or Hugh Grant, the Brit accent is a winner all round (clearly the main reason English boys pull outside of the homeland).
But it’s amazing how an accent can layer on or strip away someone’s allure in an instant. Surely you’ve all experienced that moment where you see a visually appealing boy/girl, but then they open their mouth and you can’t understand but one word, or they seem extremely maladroit? Pity. Or inversely someone can be incredibly appealing simply because they are so dashingly well-spoken, or have the cutest of accents!
Then sometimes the effect of accent can be rather perplexing. For example, a Swiss German I know with whom I normally speak French but who comes out with a heavy Californian accent every time he speaks in English (random or what?!). Or just plain bizarre, such as an Ancient Greek teacher I once had who, massive, skin-headed, and always clad in black t-shirts emblazoned with disturbing graphics from heavy metal groups and spiked jewellery, spoke in the most refined, genteel, dignified of English accents.
I’m banging on about accents because I just happen to have done a presentation for my phonetics class all about how difficult it is to acquire an “authentic” accent in a foreign language. And it’s true; no matter how impressive your mastery of a language, however grand your written skills, it’s your accent that’s going to betray you in an instant when you open your mouth to speak.
The article that I was studying suggested that we are inherently resistant to acquiring an accent in a foreign language because it is a sort of attack on our identity, which is deeply rooted in our mother tongue. What balls! Nobody who hears someone’s English accent while they are trying to speak French wants to sound like that! On the other hand, my Swiss friends are convinced that the fact that the French tend to have a notoriously strong accent is yet another indication of their narcissism, and how they can’t be bothered to try in another language, so proud are they of being French. But let’s not open that can of worms; the subject of the Swiss vs. the French will provide much rich material for a completely separate post…
Pronunciation is not generally something that is actively taught in a foreign language class, and is usually neglected in favour of the actual mechanics of a language, which is a pity. I’ve met people who have an excellent level in a foreign language, yet still struggle to make themselves understood.
So don’t under-estimate the importance of getting the accent right. I’m not even nearly done on the topic of accents. Next post is still going to be about accents, but in one’s own native language. I know – you can’t wait, right?