Do Accents Matter?

 In Accents and Pronunciation, Grammar

Do accents matter?  How important is an accent when you are speaking a language which is not your native tongue? Should you change your accent? Everyone has an accent – it might be a mother-tongue accent or, as with ESL students, a second language accent. Accent is how an individual pronounces a given language. An accent includes a combination of consonants and vowels and features like duration, rhythm, stress, pitch, intonation, and loudness. The answer to the question, do accents matter?,depends on whether you can be understood in the language you are speaking, accent and all.

A first language accent can vary according to one’s region – where you come from – or one’s cultural group. People from Minnesota speak English with a very distinctive accent. The New York Jewish accent is not only a product of the region (New York) in which it has developed, but also the culture, with heavy influences of Yiddish and Hebrew affecting the way people speak, even if they no longer speak Hebrew or Yiddish.

The second kind of accent is a second language accent that occurs when a native speaker of a different language learns to speak English. The degree to which a person can substitute one accent for another depends a lot on the age at which the second language is learned. Also, while children can often learn a second or third language with ease, the same is not true for many adults. It is thought that by the time we are in our adolescence our accent is hard-wired in the brain. Changing our accent after this takes work! It is unrealistic to expect a person who learned to speak English as an adult to sound just like a native English speaker, regardless as to commitment, intelligence, and motivation. People such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, while speaking English very correctly and clearly, never lose their accent. It may be less pronounced if you have been immersed in a community of first language English speakers. The length of time spent in the community and the type of pronunciation difference or phonological rule involved, also play an important part in determining the extent to which a person can speak a second language without an accent.

do accents matter?

Regarding ESL students, we would say – not very much.  Keep these points in mind however when you are speaking a new language:

As an ESL student learning English in the USA, your accent impresses others – it sounds nice and it shows that you want to learn about American culture. When speaking to Americans:

First, don’t pretend to understand. Ask the person to slow down a bit because you are having difficulty understanding them.

Second, take your time as well, putting together sentences and ask the person to be patient. You are learning a new language, and that is difficult.

Ask for help from others if you need it. Respect for diversity can be extended to language and speech. By explaining this you encourage others to confront the stereotypes and prejudices that are often associated with specific speech patterns.

Immigrants to the USA sometimes take accent-reduction classes. But, as America becomes an increasingly multicultural nation, the notion of an “accent” may change.

In these days of globalization, most people are familiar with a number of foreign accents, and not only are they comfortable, but they are received much more positively than the ‘old days’ when foreign accents were viewed quite negatively. Even within the United States, the Southern “twang” or “drawl” was looked down on by some Northerners.

It is not only the United States where ideas about what is a pure accent exist. Within many nations one can find languages considered more “pure” and “official” than other forms of the language. Castilian Spanish, for example, is often considered “pure.” Other spanish accents from other region are considered inferior!

Not all accents are considered negative. French accents, for example, are considered positive by many. We love the accents of Irish and Australian movie stars, or even Charlize Theron for her South African accent.

Do accents matter?  It really depends on you.  for many in this age of globalization, accents are often regarded as super hot!

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