I’ve always been fascinated by accents. In college, I had a thing for British accents after visiting England the summer before my freshman year. A hint of something different in your speech is interesting, and in the case of a foreign accent, it means you speak another language. Maybe the one thing that clues you into the fact that I love foreign accents is my choice of spouse. I married a French guy!
But then there’s the whole other side of foreign accents. The ugly side. When people say critical things to someone who speaks with a foreign accent. Sometimes they do this without realizing it, but most of the time, people are fully aware that what they’re saying is rude… as if having an accent is a flaw. Well guess what, it’s not. There’s no shame in having an accent — foreign or otherwise.
Having an accent is not a defect
Accents are normal. I grew up in the New York City area hearing non-native English accents all the time (not to mention regional ones). From teachers at school to friends’ parents, to my own friends and coworkers in college and beyond, to now my husband. Accents are commonplace.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I have an accent in French. A non-native accent. As an English speaker who
learned is learning French as an adult, I’ll always have an accent, like most foreigners speaking a non-native language. Foreign accents are not something to eliminate. Even if we wanted to, it would be pretty difficult to remove all traces of a foreign accent as an adult. Besides, why would we want to?
The truth is I think having an accent is a good thing most of the time, but it can also make you self-conscious. I tend to speak loudly on purpose when ordering from the back of the line at the boulangerie so I don’t have to repeat myself. Heads always turn out here in small-town France because people want to know who that voice is coming from. They’re curious.
19 Things that are true when you have an accent >>
Accents mean you’re different. They may make you stand out unless you’re surrounded by others with accents in a big city. They may make you perk up your ears if you’re on the receiving end of accented speech. They may make you curious. Above all, accents are beautiful. You speak another language!
But know what accents aren’t? A defect.Anyone who makes us feel like we're defective is the one with the defect. A foreign accent means you speak more than 1 #language. How is that anything BUT a positive thing?Click To Tweet
Anyone who makes us feel like we’re defective is the one with the defect.
There is no shame in speaking with an accent. You’re not less smart or less worthy of a job or friends or less of a human being because you have a foreign accent.
How can speaking 2+ languages be anything but a positive thing?
If you’re able to communicate your thoughts and be understood by others who speak the language, then you’re already winning. You’ve done good. That is the goal. To be able to speak and to be understood.
I think accent modification classes are great only when the above two things — to communicate clearly and be understood — are a problem. Or if you’re an actor needing to sound a certain way for a role. Or a spy trying to pass as a native speaker. But aside from that, don’t worry about it. If you’re understood and you can understand others, that’s the goal.
Speaking of accent modification, I recently read an article about a Toronto woman named Melissa James who helps people modify their accents: “People are reporting that they feel less confident when they speak because of their accents. They feel that they’re not moving up in their careers because of their accents. And they feel that they aren’t able to blend in and assimilate in the way that they want to, because of their accents,” she explains.
That’s a very real concern. If you have a super heavy accent to the point where it’s getting in the way of you communicating clearly and effectively — especially in a professional environment — and your accent is making it difficult for others to understand you, then absolutely work on your pronunciation. We can all improve. If you personally want to speak with less of an accent for whatever reason, then that’s more than fine. We all need to work on things that are important to us, and if reducing an accent is a priority of yours, then by all means, reduce away!
But when your accent is your best attempt at sounding like a native speaker, why is it something to feel badly about if we are understood just fine?
Why do others make us feel like we’re so different?
Ignorance? Jealousy? Their own insecurities? Maliciousness?
I’ve fortunately never had anyone act outwardly malicious toward me because I have an accent, just the opposite really. But people have made ignorant comments and made me feel left out. Or shown me that all I am to them is the woman with the accent and nothing more. People have commented on me having an accent as if it’s some type of personal shortcoming that goes beyond just being an identifier.
I will say that I was probably more touchy about having an accent my first couple of years in France. Everything was new, including me speaking French. I was unsure of myself and my speech, so I took any type of comment about my accent personally. My French wasn’t fluid at all, so having an accent as well as barely being able to keep up was a double whammy. When I first arrived, I remember saying sorry and assuring people I expressed myself much more intelligently in my native tongue. When you so desperately want to fit in, any reminder that you’re different can be hard to take.
These days, I speak just fine so if someone comments about my accent, I just smile and move past the comment, not giving it any of my energy. There’s a difference between a perfectly understandable accent and terrible pronunciation and a low level in that language, though. Once your level improves, your confidence will build. Naturally, the accent worries tend to die down as well. My accent is just part of who I am in France and I embrace it.What I've learned is that having an accent is also an opportunity to educate.Click To Tweet
What I’ve learned is that having an accent is also an opportunity to educate.
Tell people where you’re from and let them play language teacher and correct you if you’re up for it. Allow them to learn from you and teach them some of your language. Talk about culture and language learning and stereotypes. Be that model foreigner. We always have more to learn.
What people perceive as a negative can always be flipped around into a positive. Show them the other side. Your accent is not a defect.
How has life with an accent been for you? What do you think of foreign accents?
This is very true even if you don’t speak a foreign language. I’ve never had anyone say anything awful about mine (at least to my face), but when I lived in the UK people would routinely tell me they hated Australian accents and then say “Oh, but you don’t sound very Australian.” And I’d reply with “…but I am,” and just feel very baffled.
Honestly, if you haven’t got anything nice to say, then taisez-vous!
Hi LC! Completely understand feeling baffled. It’s so petty when people complain about something like an accent, as if we’re trying to draw attention to ourselves or speak in a way they don’t like lol. I’m 100% with you, if you don’t have anything nice to say, shut it!
A thorny question I know, but: do you think foreign accents are particularly looked down on in France, compared to other places? I grew up bilingual, so I have a French accent when I’m speaking French and an English accent when I’m speaking English.
But I have this massive block when I travel to a country where I speak the language adequately but with a noticeably foreign accent (I speak Spanish with an English accent, I think, and German with a French accent). It makes me not want to try speaking because I feel like people will judge me for it. I was talking to a friend – who’s much more well-travelled than I am – about this a while ago and she was stunned that it was even a consideration. She was like, “But you love hearing foreign accents in England, right? So why would anyone else be different?” and I realised that my fear stemmed from hearing the French people around me growing up judging the English accents they heard from learners, talking about how it was “butchering the language”.
Since this conversation with my friend I’ve tried to be bolder abroad even with my foreign accents, and so far I’ve encountered no negative comments at all. But even now the French people I hang out with here in London sometimes talk about how speaking French with e.g. an English accent detracts from the beauty of the language. I wonder if that’s an actual correlation or if it’s just been my experience?
Hi Scar! I can’t really give you a balanced answer to your question about the French looking down on foreign accents. I know that the people I’ve interacted with and observed — purely my experiences, not saying this is the case across the board — tend to look down on North African accents the most.
When it comes to native English speakers, I think as long as you can hold your own in the language, the accent isn’t something any normal, educated French person would look at as a negative. People are generally supportive and nice. Atleast those are the ones I try to interact with. There are idiots everywhere, though. Some people don’t think before they speak or think it’s fine to make judgments and commentary not realizing that what they are saying is hurtful.
And you described the problem that a lot of us have when we first arrive or when we aren’t confident in our skills — the not wanting to try speaking for fear of being judged. I think I wrote a post about that a few years ago…let me link it for anyone interested: https://www.ouiinfrance.com/getting-over-fear-of-speaking-foreign-language/
I think it just takes time to feel comfortable and then to mentally adopt a I DGAF attitude and go for it. The sooner the better for those of us who move abroad and have to speak the foreign language to get by.
I think anyone who has the gall to accuse someone who is trying their best of butchering French needs to step back and lighten up. They can either say nothing or try to help. No one sets out intentionally trying to butcher anything and language learning is an ongoing process. So rude comments don’t help and can make a sensitive person turn inward even more.
Now about the French people you hang with in London who say English accents in French take away from the beauty of the language, what do they suggest? Not speaking at all? All French people don’t speak English so if they can’t deal with an accent, not sure what the solution is. Sounds realllllllly snobby and I have not encountered that attitude. If anyone said that to my face, that would be the last time I’d hang out with them.
I’m sure you’re better than you think, Scar, in Spanish and German, so go out there and show ’em who is boss. It’s amazing you speak so many languages so anyone who complains about an accent is the one w/the problem. Really!
Great post Diane, as always! I also used to (and sometimes still do but rarely), beat myself up about my accent. But I just think that’s really unfair because everyone loves when Italians speak English so why can’t the Italians like when a native English speaker speaks Italian? 😀
Thank you for reading, Jasmine! Do you feel like Italians don’t like North American accents or is it more about us foreigners psyching ourselves out?
I really, really like this article and the title because I hate having an accent in… well, pretty much all the languages I speak, I suppose. I don’t sound French when I speak English, probably because I learned it in Canada and spoke it first with Feng who obviously doesn’t have a French accent. But I’m sure I have an accent and I hate it. A couple of months ago, when we were in Santiago, I helped a few lost tourists. I asked them where they were from (Americans, Canadians, I couldn’t tell) and they said they were from Nova Scotia, and started to explain that it’s a Canadian province, blah blah blah. “Oh yeah, I know, I’m from Ottawa!” I said. “AH! With an accent like yours, I don’t think you’re FROM Ottawa” one of the guys said. I was actually super offended, which may be weird…
Okay, you inspired me to write more about accents on my blog 🙂
Hi there, Juliette. Thanks so much for reading!
Accents are such a touchy subject and I never realized how touchy until I became the one with the accent after moving to France. I really thought they were cool and not a big deal, and now more than ever, I’m very aware of comments I make about others’ accents. I just avoid the subject entirely because we never know how someone else is feeling. So I understand your being offended when the tourists made a comment of you not really being from Ottawa. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it, but it’s those types of comments that have a tendency to stick with us and make us question ourselves.
In your case, you speak English perfectly so you’ve already won (and you speak Chinese!), but as I said, when my French was terrible, I was even more touchy and took things way more personally than I do now. I used to fire back a “thanks and what other language do you speak without an accent?” and pretty much everyone said they only spoke French.
Would love to read your take on the whole accent thing so I’ll keep an eye out for that post. 😉
My American son has lived and taught in France for almost seven years, after studying French in high school and college. He lives and works in a city (Nancy) where Americans are not all that common. When I asked him about working to lose his American accent, he just laughed. Being “the American” there gives him celebrity status around town. I witnessed how almost anywhere he goes in Nancy, people know him and greet him warmly. I am sure that is not the case everywhere or with everyone, but it works well for him.
This is hysterical: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11DlVds6ZFU
Haha yup, found that the other day and shared it on Facebook 🙂
Rogers Romero says
Hi Diane, although my name is Spanish and I don’t speak it. However, deep in my ancestry lies mostly Acadians.
I am from Louisiana and I am sure you have heard the accent of our people from the deep south.
Mine is no different, strong French (Cajun) accent. I make no excuses about my accent, as a matter of fact,
I am rather proud of it. I too have been to a lot of places around the world and the U.S. and never once was
I concerned. I don’t remember of anyone ever making fun of my accent. Like you, I love talking to people
from different places, especially those who speak French. There are so many dialects that I try to fit in anytime
the people are from a different place. We have French Tables here and many people that come to town come
to see what it is about. A lot come from France, some from Belgium, Africa and different places where French
is their native language. I really enjoyed your blog, it inspired me to continue believing in myself as to my accent.