Being Multilingual: You speak with an accent, I don’t

Being Multilingual: You speak with an accent, I don't Linguist Madalena Cruz-Ferreira discusses our perception of accents and how it can impact our judgement of others.

Accents are things that only other people have. They are, by extension, things that we don’t think we have.

This is why, if someone tells you that, “You speak with no accent,” you can be sure of two things: that you have received words of praise indeed; and that you speak with the same accent as that person. So the person is actually not only praising her own accent, she is also giving evidence that she has no idea she’s got one.

We seldom hear people say, “I speak with an accent,” – unless we’re talking about our uses of foreign languages. We also routinely attribute to other people other features of language: they use funny words, she mangles her grammar, he doesn’t know how to talk politely. This must mean we don’t, don’t, and do, respectively. John H. Esling deals precisely with the myth that ‘everyone has an accent except me’ in a book edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill, Language myths.

So let’s check out your accent.

Being Multilingual: You speak with an accent. I don'tBeing Multilingual: Learning languages and accents

These are _________ (choose the nearest answer – I was going to say ‘the best answer’, but I suddenly remembered that ‘best’ has prescriptive connotations):

  1. a tomahto
  2. a potahto
  3. a tomayto
  4. a potayto

I could tweak this test a little, like this…

      1.1 a tomahto
      1.2 ay tomahto
      1.3 ay toemahto
      1.4 a tomahtoe

… and I’ve barely started on the vowels. How do you say the two ‘t’ letters, for example? Do you aspirate the sounds that they represent, which means that you release a little puff of air straight after them? (You can also look up ‘aspiration’ here.) Both times?

And so on. Accents are made up of many, many interrelated features that we’ve got used to hearing or seeing, and saying or signing, as we grew up – and that, like everything else that becomes routine around us, we fail to notice. This is why we may say that we have a ‘neutral accent’: it blends in with the rest of our identity. In contrast, we instantly react to any mismatch to this ‘standard’ that we learned to make ours, and often treat it as a deviation.

Being Multilingual: You speak with an accent. I don't
There have been fascinating studies on attitudes that people have towards (other people’s) accents, showing that our opinions about accents have nothing to do with the accents themselves, and all to do with our opinions about those people. One sure way to make our (fellow-accented) friends laugh is to do impressions of accents that we, and they, learned to rate as funny. People from neighbouring countries love to do this – and not just for accents either. Malaysians poke fun at Singaporean Malay, Spaniards double up in stitches about Portuguese, and Swedes, Danes and Norwegians can’t decide among themselves which of their languages sounds more like a throat disease, a silly singsong, or just a ridiculous way of pronouncing the other two.

For accent ratings from native and non-native speakers of a language, other fascinating things happen. Take the British RP accent, one of many spoken on tape by trained actors for purposes of the experiments carried out in these studies. RP stands for Received Pronunciation, by the way, sometimes also called BBC English (although the BBC nowadays sports other accents too) or the Queen’s English (although the Queen’s accent has evolved since it got named after her). British users of other accents found the RP accent pompous and off-putting, whereas non-native users of English found it intelligent and genial. On tape, mind you. Without even meeting the speaker face-to-face. Small wonder that some people can and do lose job opportunities as soon as they open their mouths, because their prospective employers dislike the way they got used to using their languages.

What goes on about different native accents of the same language goes on about foreign accents too. We all have accents, of course, in all of our languages, spoken or signed, and we all talk funny in someone’s eyes or ears. Except native speakers of the languages we are learning, or have learned, in school, but that’s another topic for another post.

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