In praise of accents

“My friend is South African too.”

I didn’t quite know what to do with that statement.

“OK,” I said.

“Which part of the country are you from? He’s from just outside Pretoria.”

Now I get it. “Ooookay, what makes you think I’m from there too?”

“What do you mean? It’s obvious, isn’t it? I mean, I’m rubbish with languages and not very good at placing accents, but yours even I recognise.”

He’s rambling now.

I’m feeling generous so decide to put him out of his misery. “I’m not South African, I’m German.” His mouth is starting to open, his eyes are getting wider. “No way, you don’t sound German!”

I get that a lot. Assumptions about my origin. South African, mainly. And assume he did, this locksmith I had to call in because my key got stuck and after much wriggling simply snapped off.

Accents are fascinating. There are two types:

  1. Foreign accents, i.e. the ones non-native speakers of English have because they find it hard to pronounce some words and substitute the sounds with their own
  2. English accents, i.e. the ones native speakers have which vary depending on where they’re from

Let’s take native English accents, for example. From the moment someone starts talking, their accent has a bearing on the way we perceive them. It plays a part in whether we find them likeable or not so much. It has stereotypes attached to it. It gives away their level of education – sometimes wrongly. And it helps to place that person in a particular part of the English-speaking world.

When it comes to non-native accents, we aren’t as prejudiced. Neither are foreigners against English accents. We always feel stronger about accents in our own language, from our own country. If someone has the “wrong” accent, we instantly put a label on them. And we write all over it with permanent marker.

Placing accents can be a minefield. Some are so strong it’s immediately obvious where the person is from. Others are so weak you can listen to the person as long as you want and you’re just not sure if it’s foreign or a very local English one. Most of them, however, are somewhere in between. Guess them at your own peril.

So why do some foreigners have stronger accents than others? In a lot of cases it’s because they find it hard to emulate sounds that don’t exist in their own language. Practice certainly helps to iron out any linguistic bumps. So does an affinity for languages.

But if you have a strong accent, English or foreign, should you try to get rid of it? I don’t think you should. Isn’t it part of who you are? Definitely. And wouldn’t it be boring if everyone sounded the same? It would be extremely bland.

Instead, we should all like and accept our accents for what they are, like this lady from BT I had the pleasure speaking to on the phone years ago. Blessed with a strong Scottish accent, she tried to tell me my new landline number. After asking her to repeat the number for what felt like the thousandth time, I finally gave up and – in true, awkward, not-wanting-to-offend British fashion – thanked her for her time and hung up, hoping that the phone number would somehow, miraculously be right. And it was! Don’t ask me how that happened.

So if there’s an accent you find hard to understand, smile and nod. Just smile and nod.

What is your experience with English/foreign accents? And as a foreigner, do you struggle with making those English words trip off your tongue smoothly? Have you been trying to get rid of your accent or embraced it? I’d love to hear your comments and stories.