On doing as the Romans do: part i.

How strong is the relationship between language and accent? How much should accent factor into our language-learning process? What difference does it make if we choose to ignore accent altogether?

Throughout my foreign language education, a small minority of my classmates have always fallen into a peculiar category: they refuse to copy the accents of native speakers, preferring to apply their own accent from their mother tongue to the new language. They believe that accent and language shouldn’t be intrinsically linked, because one can be understood without the other. While the results can at first sound like completely new languages, most advanced speakers are eventually able to extract meaning. Imagine a person speaking English with a heavy Russian accent; as a native or fluent speaker, the outside influence is undeniable but we can still understand their speech.

In some cases, it’s involuntary: the older we get, the harder it is to hear and copy a new accent correctly. Those who come from areas ruled by one particular, distinctive accent are also at a disadvantage. Surrounded by endless speech variety during childhood, the listening skills of children in Andorra will be far more extensive than those of children in rural Argyll; from birth, the phonetic palettes of the former group have been enriched with sounds from several distinct dialects and languages. They know how to copy a large number of different spoken sounds, so they can make themselves seem more local than they actually are in several countries.

This isn’t about achieving linguistic perfection – it’s about putting in the effort.

This means that if we weren’t lucky enough to learn a second language or live in a multilingual environment at a young age, we’re far less likely to sound native in that foreign language. In fact, researchers have generally agreed that it’s a near-impossible task. But this isn’t necessarily about achieving linguistic perfection – it’s about trying, and what it says about ourselves if we aren’t willing to put in the effort. The underlying idea is, of course, that native is always better; after all, accents and languages have historically evolved in tandem. But what harm does it do if we don’t try to sound native at all? What happens when we stubbornly cling on to our own accents, as unnatural as they might seem among the landscape of local sounds?

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Robert Louis Stevenson

In certain Asian cultures, upon entering the home, the host will typically ask guests to take off their shoes as a mark of respect. All around the world, we observe a huge variety of customs when we are invited into someone else’s house. They want to share their lives with us, however similar or different they may be to our own, and if we choose to accept the invitation then we must also follow their rules. On a personal level, it’s easy to see that removing our shoes, albeit a simple gesture, goes a long way towards demonstrating our acceptance of our host. Attempting to speak a foreign language not with your usual accent, but with an accent associated with the language you are trying to learn, is the exact linguistic equivalent. It’s a small effort, but a painful blow to the international barriers that divide our global society.

Even the rarest of accents has the power to alter a common language.

This doesn’t mean that we’re only allowed to learn Castilian Spanish, or Parisian French, or RP English; instead, learn Spanish from a Colombian, learn French from a Québécois, learn English from an American or an Irishman or a Scot. Any accent connected to the language is native and therefore relevant, and each one can be equally rich and important in its own right. After all, every accent is connected to a region, each region has its own particular expressions and slang terms, and each new generation of people from that area will be culturally affected by this idiosyncratic set of vocabulary. In this way, even the rarest of accents has the power to permeate and alter the way that a common language develops over time.

But wait a minute! Isn’t this is all pointless anyway? Language and accent and speech are all constantly adapting to keep up with societal evolution. Who cares if I can’t be bothered to copy an Italian accent? It’s lost in a multicultural society. As with all things, we have to learn the rules before we break them. If we’re speaking a language but neglecting the accent, we’re only seeing half of the picture. The likely scenario is that we’re learning the language as a means to an end, and we’re failing to understand that this set of words and sounds and ideas is inextricably connected to a nation, a culture, an identity. Until we’ve learned the accent, we’ve probably never had a conversation with a native speaker, and it’s likely that we don’t really understand what it is to be French or Spanish or English. We’re not in a position to judge until we’ve seen the inside.

This is the mindset that separates the advanced speaker from the beginner.

I’m going to sound ridiculous. I won’t ever sound native anyway. My accent is part of my personality. I don’t know who I am without it. There are a million and one reasons not to try, and most of them fall under the long shadow cast by fear. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we’ll wait until we know a little more of the language; that’s when we’ll start trying out the accent. But as anyone who has ever learned a language will tell you, there’s no aspect of language learning that just “kicks in”. We must decide whether we really want to be anglophone or francophone or hispanohablante, and if so how we’re going to align our lives with that ethos. This is the mindset that separates the advanced speaker from the beginner. It all develops slowly, gradually, over time – so start now, or resign yourself to being forever on the outside, looking in.


Read part ii of this series here.

6 thoughts on “On doing as the Romans do: part i.

  1. After school, I spent some time in Paris as an au-pair girl. I attended language school, and is was mandatory to attend a phonetics class two hours per week. My French pronunciation has had a huge benefit from that. And it was so much more easy to pronounce correctly when you know the rules. If I lived again in a foreign country for a longer time, I would definitely attend a phonetics class again.

    1. Wow, sounds like it must have been a great experience – I’m so jealous! I really do think that pronunciation is an often overlooked aspect of language-learning, even though it says a lot about us and what our motives are for learning the language in the first place. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your story!

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