A personal reflection on how much a foreign accent matters while speaking a language.
When I moved to Spain 7 years ago, I was often told: “¿De dónde eres? ¡Tienes un acento muy bonito!” (Where are you from? You have a beautiful accent!) Then a famous game of guessing countries started… To tell you the truth, thanks to this strategy I made a lot of friends and interesting acquaintances. In this article, I would like to talk about the accent from the expat point of view, to share with you my own conclusions about this subject after long 7 years of living abroad. Let’s start!
What is having a foreign accent in a language?
Oxford dictionary defines the word “accent” as a distinctive way of pronouncing a language, especially one associated with a particular country, area, or social class.
If we go deeper, “distinctive” means characteristic of one person or thing, and so serving to distinguish it from others.
In other words, the way you pronounce certain sounds in a foreign language is different from how native speakers do it. It occurs when we apply the phonetic patterns of our mother tongue to foreign words. Especially it happens with the sounds that do not exist in your native language, so your brain and voice box find the closest alternative.
Is it possible to get rid completely of your foreign accent?
According to Eliza Doolittle’s experience, the answer is yes. In general, you can achieve anything, if you put in enough time and dedication. However, some have it easier than others do.
If you were born in a multilingual family, it is less probable that you end up having a foreign accent when you are an adult. When you are a kid, your voice box is still being shaped, and your ear is more sensitive to different sounds. That is why the earlier your start with a language, the better.
If you, like the majority of us, started learning a language being young or adult, it´s normal to have some marks in your intonations and pronunciation, this is where the phonetic system of your language comes into play.
The more complex the phonetic system of your language is, the easier you´ll adapt it to a new language. For example, French speakers easily pronounce –ing endings in English due to the many nasal sounds they have in their language, however, for Russian speakers it requires practice and perseverance, as there are no nasal sounds at all.
As a native Russian speaker, I have a strong R sound in my language, so I do not have trouble pronouncing words like perro, rusia, horario in Spanish. However, when it comes to English, you can easily trace me as a Slavic person because of my developed R sound.
The phonetic system in Spanish is relatively simple; there are five clear vocals, so when a Spanish speaker tries to pronounce a famous schwa sound in English, the result may be barely understandable. In addition, no words are starting with s in Spanish, and in Spain Spotify magically turns into Espotify!:)
How to know whether or not you have to work on your foreign accent
To my mind, the clear indication that you have to work on your pronunciation and try to improve your accent while speaking a foreign language is when people have trouble understanding you. Saying “good look” instead of “good luck” leads to misunderstanding, and in this case, maybe yes, you should devote some time to doing some pronunciation exercises.
Having an accent in your own language or looking for the standard.
If you are determined to work on your pronunciation, we face another interesting question: which way of pronunciation do you take as a standard?
Let´s take English… Shall you learn the American, Australian, British way of pronunciation? Let´s zoom in the UK, Yorkshire area where you will hear saying /lʊv/, /ˈkʊntri/, /kʊp/ instead of /lʌv/, /ˈkʌntri/ and /kʌp/.
The same happens In Spain: the way people speak in the south has nothing to do with the north. Even within the same area, Andalucía for example that I love with all my heart, you can find acento sevillano, granadino, cordobés… Which one will you take as a reference?
Your accent is your identity
It is up to you whether you want to work on your accent or not, there is no limit to perfection. The thing you definitely should not do is be ashamed or self-conscious about having an accent. On the entire contrary, be proud of it, it proves that you are a hard-working and intelligent person, as living in a foreign country or speaking a different language is something brave to do.
In my experience, and in the experience of my international friends, a foreign accent has never been an obstacle for anything, be it at work, or in a social life. I like to think that my foreign accent tells a story about me, in some sense, makes me unique.
Always bear in mind, that accents are beautiful, they reflect the variaty of our world!