Parroting accents may not be the best way to fluency

Accentuate the positive: accents and language learning

This post comes to you from beautiful Belfast, where I’ve spent a wonderful weekend attending a wedding with good friends. The trip has been a treat in more ways than one. As a linguist, accents have always piqued my interest. And at every turn in this great city, I’ve been hearing some wonderfully rich local talk.

Most of the accents I’ve heard are some variety of the central Belfast lilt itself, while others are from further afield. A couple of times, I’ve been lucky enough to catch a bit of Ulster Scots, as impenetrable as that is to the untrained ear! During one taxi ride, I have to admit to the crime of nodding along while understanding barely half the conversation. I really should know better as a language learner!

Accents upon accents

But what I find most fascinating is how local speech patterns impinge upon the English of those who speak it as a second language. This should be nothing new to me, of course, as I hear chimeric accents all the time in Edinburgh. But, surrounded by them all the time, it’s often easy to miss the hint of Scots that inflects the accents of EFL speakers north of the border. Belfast reminded me of just how much the environment affects our acquisition of a foreign language.

I’ve always found that mixing of accents an incredible thing. It’s like a grafting of our life experiences, manifest through our personal travel and migration history, onto speech. Our experiences are etched, in sound, into the way we talk.

In Belfast, for example, you might hear it when the pure, short vowels of a Polish native speaker meld into the open, broad ones of Ulster English. And if you focus closely enough on your own speech in a foreign language, you will detect similar touch points. These are the lines where your speech past meets your language learning present, and both flow into one another.

Foreign versus local

As a language-obsessed kid, I would often dream of learning a language so well that I’d pass for native. Whenever I start a new language, there is still a bit of me – that dogged perfectionist – that would love to reach this goal. But is that goal attainable – or even desirable? Is it so bad that our accents in a foreign language are marked by our linguistic past? Is it such a disaster that sometimes I sound a bit English when I speak German?

Of course, the idea of environment affecting learning throws up the opposite question: when aiming for ‘perfect accents’, should we select neutral varieties as our model for our foreign language speech? Or is there value in allowing the places we spend time in making their mark on our emerging voices? Is Belfast, Edinburgh or Birmingham English any less valid as a learning goal than ‘standard’ English (whatever that might be)? In some language environments, like Norway, for example, it is near impossible to avoid absorbing some local hue if you are in the country for any length of time.

These two things are in tension all the time – sounding foreign versus sounding local. And spending time in Belfast, and loving the sound of these accent hybrids, reminds me that it’s really not worth worrying about perfection when it comes to your accent in the target language.

Think how stilted the English variant RP sounds. And it is far from neutral; ironically labelled as such, it actually comes with a lot of social, class-ridden baggage. Accents, whether they are local, minority, niche, sociolect, jargon or brand new hybrids that arise in the mouths of non-native learners, give colour.

Accent pride

It wasn’t until I went to university that I realised I even had an accent in my native language. It was the first proper excursion out of my bubble of home, and it was quite a realisation. It’s always a surprise awakening when you realise that you carry these geographical and social markers that you are barely aware of as a youngster.

As a young English assistant in Austria, I could barely escape it – I strove to tone down the Midlands low diphthongs (like ‘oi’ for ‘ai’) when I realised that the kids were starting to pick it up. “Do I really sound like that?” I thought. Even today, this is something I have to be aware of when speaking a foreign language. My natural set of vowels is lower and broader than most of the languages I’ve learnt, and I try to bear that in mind when mapping my own voice across. (Incidentally, it actually helps a lot with Norwegian, which – to my ear – shares a lot of characteristics with my own English accent!) Certainly, the way you speak your native language can create challenges – and opportunities – in your target language.

But pride in your accent can be a positive act of social defiance in many ways. Personally, I felt slightly ashamed of my Midlands twang for many years. During our formative years, the media drills into us a certain prejudice about accents, and the notion of how people ‘should’ sound. I grew up with my local accent routinely ridiculed on television, for example. Similarly, people in Newcastle and Liverpool have had to put up with countless research studies that position their accents as the ‘least popular’. Shamefully, this speech snobbery continues today.

Don’t worry – be happy

So where does this leave us? The crux of it is, again, that worrying too much about accent in a foreign language is futile. One one hand, it is impossible to escape the fusion of elements when you learn another language. On the other hand, this is where the colour is, the aspects that make you you.

Enjoy the variety, and don’t break your head trying to fit some kind of imagined standard. Your accent – native or target language – is a product of all your life experiences. Be proud of it!

Richard West-Soley aboard the SS Nomadic at Titanic Belfast in July, 2018

Aboard the SS Nomadic at Titanic Belfast

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