It ain’t what you say it’s the way that you say it
Like many Americans, we are often unaware of our own accent. But, everyone has an accent – it might be your mother-tongue accent or a second language accent. Accent is how an individual pronounces a given language. An accent includes a combination of consonants and vowels and prosodic features, including duration, rhythm, stress, pitch, intonation, and loudness.
A first language accent can vary according to one’s region – where you come from – or even one’s cultural group. People from Minnesota speak English in a very distinctive way, using “yah” or “you betcha” or “like totally” or “hella”. The “Minnesota” accent is influenced by Scandinavian and Canadian dialects. There is a large population of Norwegian immigrants which is where a lot of the speech traits come from. 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.
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”.
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 Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger, while speaking English very 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.
Immigrants to the USA sometimes take accent-reduction classes. But, as America becomes an increasingly multicultural nation, the notion of an “accent” may change. Increasingly, foreign accents are viewed as the norm rather than the exception. Some accents have always had a positive connotation: French accents, for example, and we love the accents of Irish and Australian movie stars or even Charlize Theron for her South African accent.
As an ESL student learning English in the USA, communication with local people is a fabulous way of getting to grips with the language. Always remember that having an accent means that you are bothering to learn some else’s language and most locals will appreciate that.
When speaking with native English speakers –
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.
At the end of the day — your accent is another keepsake from home, and a very precious one at that!
The more languages you know, the more you are human. (Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk)