Accent and Identity

Inna Hanson finds that the reasons nonnative speakers of English keep or lose their accents go beyond established theories of brain and speech development. See Debbie Zacarian’s The Road Taken column, "Mascot or Member?," Essential Teacher, September 2007.

Search the Internet for accent reduction, and you'll get about 1,180,000 hits offering software programs, personal tutoring, and online and telephone classes. With so much help available for people who want to improve, modify, neutralize, reduce, or even eliminate their accents, is anyone interested in keeping one?

Insecure about Accent

Preying on insecurities of nonnative speakers and their need to fit in, the accent-elimination business promises that you can increase intelligibility, gain confidence, eliminate career barriers, and even improve professional image through accent reduction therapy and speech pathology.

The message is clear: having an accent is undesirable. But to whom is it undesirable: the bearer of the accent, the listener, speech pathologists, or society as a whole?

Can Anyone Shed an Accent?

With these questions in mind, I, as a nonnative speaker of English, interviewed other nonnative speakers. At first, I flatly told them that I had come to believe anyone could learn to speak English with almost no accent but that subconscious reasons and inhibitions get in the way. These reasons include an unwillingness to assume another identity, a lack of confidence, and rejection of nativelike speech. Based on my observations and interviews, whether you keep or lose your accent seems to go beyond established theories of brain and speech development.

Second Language, Second Identity

The idea that "second language learning involves the acquisition of a second identity" (Brown 2000, 182) sounds like second language learners may have a personality disorder, but I believe the idea to be true. Some of my interviewees agreed that they often feel as if they are different people when speaking English. Personally, I sound and feel more assertive and confident when I speak English than I do when I speak my native Russian. In fact, I prefer English if I need to stand my ground or deliver a tough message. On the other hand, because English requires clear enunciation of sounds, I often perceive my speech as overly assertive or angry, and thus, subconsciously, I intentionally try to enunciate a little less so as not to sound too proper. 

Another inhibition involves being exposed as a play-actor. Several times listeners have made me feel uncomfortable after recognizing an accent after a slip in my pronunciation. "Oh, I hadn't noticed your accent! Where are you from?" That question makes me feel as if I am deceiving people about my background and identity. To avoid this situation, I keep myself from sounding like a native speaker. Having an accent strips me of privacy. Complete strangers suddenly feel free to ask questions they would not ask a native speaker. The accent somehow removes the need for manners and encourages nosiness.

One of my interviewees said she felt that speaking without an accent would be like not telling the truth about herself. If people don't hear the accent, she continued, they assume different things about you in terms of cultural and behavioral expectations. Therefore, a nonnative speaker’s unaccented speech may cause confusion about the speaker’s identity and interfere with communication. In Steinbeck's (2003) East of Eden, Chinese servant Lee, living in early twentieth-century California, switches his accent on and off according to others’ expectations of his identity.

Accentism

On the other hand, having an accent may keep you from being taken seriously. One of my interview subjects used the term accentism in reference to biases, challenges, and even lost opportunities that nonnative speakers may face in a society. Sadly, people with accents are not always perceived as competent, educated, or even trustworthy. In the course of my interviews, I heard repeatedly that native speakers are often distracted by the accent and fail to concentrate on the message.

As Lang (2007), writing about her experience as a nonnative speaker in Germany, put it, "If I try to fight a rate increase from the local utility company, or get the playground equipment fixed at the local park, or simply object when someone takes my parking space, I risk being ignored or, worse, told, ‘If you don't like it, go home’" (¶ 4). She also wrote, "If I raise my hand and complain, I fear, I will invite all kinds of unwanted attention: anti-Americanism, xenophobia or just plain scorn for my atrociously accented German" (¶ 9).

Lack of acceptance of nonnative speakers may be a universal problem. People with accents may experience conflict not only with their identities, but also with the identities of native speakers in a larger sense. One expectation of speaking in a target language may be speaking at the same level of fluency as native speakers. If you don't, you may be perceived as a person who doesn't try hard enough to fit in and, consequently, does not identify with native speakers, their culture, and their country.

Do You Want to Lose Your Accent?

Interestingly enough, when asked if they would like to lose their accents completely, most of my interviewees said no, noting that accent is a big part of their identity and makes them feel special and original. Speaking with an accent in the United States has fewer negative consequences than, say, in Germany. According to my interviewees, although it's not always easy, most of the time they are able to accomplish their goals. Americans, being influenced by diverse and democratic history, seem to be more tolerant of accents than citizens other nations in the world. In the United States, I believe, you can complain, demand, persuade, comment, and pursue and be heard even if you speak with an "atrocious" accent.

References

Brown, D. 2000. Principles of language learning and teaching. San Francisco: Longman.

Lang, G. 2007. Speaking up, regardless of your accent. International Herald Tribune, January 26. http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/01/26/news/avoice.php.

Steinbeck, J. 2003. East of Eden. New York: Penguin. (Orig. pub. 1952)

Inna Hanson (InnaH@SpokaneSchools.org) has taught English language development arts and social studies at Garry Middle School, Spokane, in the United States, since 2003.