two women speak

Do we all have a language accent?

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 students have asked me how I could help them reduce their accents. One student even requested that I dedicate part of the ESL class to teaching everyone how to “change their accent.”

I was very surprised by the student’s urgency to change his pronunciation. However, I understood his concern about having an accent. Growing up, I was often teased because of my accent, and sometimes I wished I didn’t have one.

In response to the student’s request, I emphasized that everyone has an accent. This is true even for those who speak only one language; everyone has a unique way of speaking that reflects their background and experiences. For those who speak more than one language, having an accent is a sign of multilingualism. It demonstrates the ability to communicate in multiple languages, a valuable and impressive skill. Not everyone can claim to be multilingual, so an accent in a second language should be seen as a badge of honor, representing linguistic diversity and capability.

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.

Dr. 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.

Accent Discrimination

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 visit schools, and individuals advertise a false idea about reducing or eliminating an accent. I know that one can pretend to speak differently or try to sound different, but that does not mean one can get rid of a language accent.

An accent can be a stigma, even within native speakers of the same language.

Hernan Diaz

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

Accents can vary significantly among students, and some might wonder why certain students have stronger or more noticeable accents than others. This variation is a natural part of our identity and personal development. Accents reflect not only our linguistic background but also our cultural and social experiences. When we learn a new language, our accents can become more pronounced, especially when we learn the language later in life.

The age at which we begin learning a second language plays a crucial role in the strength of our accent. Generally, the older we are when we start learning a new language, the stronger our accent will likely be. This phenomenon can be observed within families. For instance, my youngest brother has the least noticeable accent among my siblings because he started learning English at nine years old. In contrast, those of us who began learning English later in life tend to have more pronounced accents. This difference underscores the impact of early language acquisition on accent development.

On the contrary, my other siblings and I began learning English as a second language when we were over 11 years old. This age factor highlights an important fact about language accents: the older you are when you learn another language, the more noticeable your accent will be.

Pronunciation Challenges

Pronunciation challenges are a common hurdle for language learners, impacting their ability to communicate effectively and confidently. These difficulties arise from various factors, including the phonetic differences between the learner’s native and target language, the age of acquisition, and the influence of native language interference. Pronunciation can lead to misunderstandings and affect a learner’s self-esteem and willingness to engage in conversation.

Common Pronunciation Challenges:

  1. Vowel Sounds: Many languages have vowel sounds that do not exist in others, making it difficult for learners to produce or distinguish them accurately.
  2. Consonant Clusters: Consonant combinations that do not occur in a learner’s native language can be particularly challenging.
  3. Intonation and Stress: Proper intonation and stress patterns are crucial for natural-sounding speech but can be challenging to master.
  4. Silent Letters: Languages like English have many silent letters that can confuse learners.
  5. Phonetic Differences: Subtle differences in phonetic sounds, such as the English “th” sound, can be hard to replicate.

Pronunciation can be tricky for language learners for a few reasons. When we try to speak a new language, it’s like learning a whole new set of rules for how to make sounds with our mouths. Imagine trying to learn a new dance move—it takes practice to get it just right!

Firstly, our language habits can get in the way. Just as we have a certain way of moving our bodies when we dance, we also have certain habits in how we make sounds when we talk. These habits, called “native language influence,” can make it tough to speak a new language perfectly because we’re used to making sounds in a different way.

Another factor that affects pronunciation is the age at which we start learning. Just as it is easier to learn a dance move when we are young and flexible, it is also easier to learn new sounds in a language at a young age. Children have a natural ability to pick up new sounds quickly, but as we grow older, it can become more challenging to accurately pronounce new sounds.

Lastly, hearing the language spoken by native speakers is super important for pronouncing it correctly. It’s like learning a dance move by watching someone else do it first. If we don’t have many opportunities to hear native speakers talk, it can be hard to know if we’re saying things correctly. Therefore, having lots of exposure to native speakers and authentic language use can really help improve our pronunciation skills.

Pronunciation and Practice

As the definition of an accent suggests, it is simply a way of pronunciation. People with accents often struggle to pronounce certain words. For instance, I sometimes have difficulty pronouncing certain words correctly. However, having an accent does not mean we are less smart or knowledgeable.

Instead, it means we need to be more mindful of our language. As language learners, we will inevitably encounter words that make us pause when speaking. For example, one word I often struggle with is “butter.” I have to think about this word before I say it.

There are several strategies you can use to practice pronouncing words that are difficult for you in another language:

Use an online dictionary

Find a dictionary that provides audio pronunciations. Use an online pronunciation tool to help you hear pronunciations.

Break down the sounds

Listen to each sound in the word separately. This can help you identify which part of the word is challenging.

Phonetic transcription

Write out the word’s sounds in your native language. This can help you practice reading and saying the word out loud.

Practice regularly

Repeat the word out loud until you feel comfortable pronouncing it.

Sometimes, I need to be extra careful when speaking to others. I know I have to be cautious, and that’s okay. Occasionally, I may have to repeat myself, and that’s also okay. When in doubt, use different words to convey your point, whether you have an accent or not.

Takeaways

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 unique. We must learn to embrace our accents to show our kids that having an accent is a sense of multilingual power.

Source: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/we-stigmatize-accents-but-language-belongs-to-everyone#transcript

Sharing is caring!

2 thoughts on “Do we all have a language accent?”

  1. LOVE this post! I was so conscious of my accent for so many years! Until I became an advocate for raising bilingual, multilingual and multicultural children and realized my accent is my superpower! 🙂 Maritere Bellas

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top