As an English language learner, I know I have a language accent that I will proudly carry for the rest of my life. As an ESL teacher, some of my students once asked me how I could help him remove his accent. He asked that I spend part of the ESL class teaching everyone how to “change their accent.”
I was very surprised by the student’s urgent to change his pronunciation. However, I understood his concern about having an accent. This is because growing up, I was teased and also wished at times I did not have an accent myself.
My response reinforced the fact that everyone has an accent. It is correct that we all have an accent, even when speaking only one language. For those who speak more than one language, having an accent is a sign of multilingualism. As you know, not everyone can claim to be multilingual unless we speak more than one language.
What is an accent?
According to wikipedia.com, an “accent” is a way of pronunciation particular to a speaker or group of speakers. This definition makes me wonder why some companies create courses to teach something that’s part of someone’s identity. Why not, instead, educate bilinguals about being proud of their identity, including our unique accents?
One of the best articles about language accents discusses the experience of Hernan Diaz, an associate director at Columbia University. In his article and video, Mr. Diaz discusses his experience of being discriminated against because of his accent whenever he uses one of the three languages he speaks.
Mr. Diaz himself shares his experience of being discriminated against when he spoke in each language because, in each language, he had a unique accent. People overlook the power of having an accent and instead focus on the accent itself.
You might have heard of accent discrimination. Accent discrimination is so natural that some schools and companies take advantage of people’s negative experiences. They give false hope of getting rid of an accent.
It is discouraging to see how so many colleges and businesses fool students into thinking that an accent can be “corrected” or changed. It is also upsetting to see schools and individuals advertise a false idea about reducing or eliminating an accent. I know that one can pretend to speak a different way or try to sound different, but that does not mean one can get rid of a language accent.
What’s important to know and understand is that an accent is not a negative perception of oneself. People who discriminate against an accent will most likely discriminate against many other things. Unfortunately, some people will always find something to pick on. You might also notice that most people who discriminate against a person’s accent can only speak one language.
Age and Accents
Some might wonder why some students’ accents are stronger or more noticeable than others. Subsequently, as part of our identities, accents are part of our ongoing development as a person. Accents are often more prominent in the additional languages we learn.
The older we are when we learn a second language, the stronger the accent one might have. For example, among my siblings, you’ll see that my younger sibling has a less noticeable accent than the others. That’s because he began learning English as a second language at nine years old.
On the contrary, my other siblings and I began learning English as a second language when we were over 11. That age factor shows an important fact about language accents. The older you are when you learn another language, the more robust the accent will show.
Pronunciation and Practice
As the definition of accent notes, accent is a way of pronunciation. People with accents often struggle to pronounce certain words. There are times I struggle to pronounce words correctly. This does not mean that an accent makes us less smart or knowledgeable.
This means that we should be more in tune with the language we use. As language learners, we will sooner or later realize that there are words we have to pause for when speaking. For instance, one word I often struggle with is “butter.” This is a word I think about before I say it.
You can do several things to practice the words you know might be difficult to say in another language.
First, look up the word in an online dictionary that would say the word out loud for you. This will allow you to hear its correct pronunciation. Second, make sure to listen to each separate sound as you hear the word. Third, write out the sounds in your native language so you can read and say them out loud. Last, practice saying the word out loud until you feel comfortable saying the word.
Sometimes, I have to be extra careful about the words I use when speaking to others. I know I have to be extra cautious, which is okay. I may sometimes have to repeat myself to others, and that’s also ok. Nevertheless, use different words to get your point across with or without an accent when in doubt.
Power of an accent
Remember that having an accent is a sign of being bilingual and sometimes multilingual. Dr. Hernan Diaz states that an accent echoes one language or tone in another. Accents may vary from place to place, but remember that language belongs to everyone.
An accent is part of our identity. It is an asset that makes us our unique selves. We must learn to embrace our accents to show our kids that having an accent is a sense of multilingual power.