Speaking with a foreign accent

I came across an interesting post today over on David Crystal’s blog about foreign accents. He believes that as long as other people can understand what you say in a foreign language, it doesn’t really matter if you speak it with a non-native accent. In fact your accent conveys your identity. He states that “it is very rare indeed for someone to develop a phonetic ability to the extent that their foreign origins are totally masked”, and that the only people who would really need to do so are spies.

It is indeed very difficult to speak a foreign language with completely native pronunciation and intonation, unless you acquire it at a young age. Having a training in phonetics certainly helps, as does prolonged immersion in the language. It also helps if you’re a good mimic.

I do my best to acquire as near a native accent as possible in the languages I’m learning, and my accent tends to improve if I spend a lot of time speaking those languages with native speakers. When people ask me which part of their country I’m from, or assume I’m from a neighbouring country where the same language is spoken, I know I’m one the right track.

Do you think it matters if you have a ‘foreign’ accent when speaking another language?

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This entry was posted in Language, Language learning, Pronunciation.

13 Responses to Speaking with a foreign accent

  1. Travis says:

    I don’t think it matters if you have an accent in a foreign language, as long as it’s close enough to the correct pronunciation as not to cause your listener undue effort in understanding you. I really like hearing people speak English with an accent and inventive grammar, but I feel taxed when it’s so sloppy that I have to put all my effort into breaking the code rather than keeping a flow of communication going. I feel I’m insulting the speaker if I don’t understand him/her. The French have really taken efforts to produce fine language programs for those interested in France. It’s a tradition. When I was studying French in Paris as a young man, I went to the Alliance Française. Among the language courses… taught exclusively in French of course, they had a phonetics lab, I mean a really well thought out phonetics program. I had good pronunciation to begin with, but the lab smoothed the rough edges. I was occasionally mistaken for being french by the french. But I haven’t found the equivalent of the comprehensive pronunciation program in other languages. I’m studying Japanese. I can be understood without problem, but my accent is unmistakably gaijin. Wish I had found the equivalent of the Alliance Japonaise, that instructs the students how to shape the mouth and tongue, with clear repetitive exercises. But getting back to the subject, I haven’t gotten any negative feedback about my accent when I speak with Japanese people. Maybe they find it as appealing to hear their native language through another’s phonetics, as I do when I hear English rendered into a new variety of sounds.

  2. J says:

    Francophones in Montreal tend to switch to English when they detect even a whiff of an accent because it’s easier for business to be conducted all round. However, it frustrated me because I wanted to practice. I learned the trick of faking the Quebecois accent while speaking French — not perfectly, but enough to confuse them so that they stuck to French and I could continue practicing.

    From then on, I’ve always tried my best to adopt the local accent in whatever language I’m learning. It also makes for a neat conversation piece when I return home and meet someone from the country I just visited.

  3. renato figueiredo says:

    The most important is being understandable. This values for any language you learn. Foreign people, in general, always appreciate when see a person from a differnt country trying to talk their languages, even if you commit some mistakes. They are seen that you are working hard to learn and express yourself in their language. The same thing happens in big countries where regionalisms appear. I was born in Rio de Janeiro, lived the for a little mores than 20 years, and for the last 19 years I have been living in Southern Brazilian city of Santa Maria, wher they have different accent from Rio, and until today they asked me Where I am from? or go directly “You are from Rio, aren’t you?. When I go to Rio, my people say that I’m from southern, because I already lost something of my traditional “carioca” accent.

  4. drod says:

    I think it is important to be able to speak a foreign language with the correct accent. I, apparantly, am a good mimic. I have had people from India, Korea, Greece, Germany, and Spanish speaking countries all comment on the fact that “You sound exactly like a Hindi/Korean/Greek/German/Hispanic.” I also find it entertaining to speak English with a foreign accent, it is a good way to know if you really understand how to produce the accent for that language.

  5. Polly says:

    @drod:
    In that order, right? ;-)

    I agree about speaking English with foreign accents, it’s a good, and fun, way to practice getting the foreign phonemes down.

    To the main topic:
    I see accent-free language as a good goal, like perfection in anything is a good goal to strive towards. Just don’t let it get you down if you don’t achieve it.

  6. Daniel says:

    Also, if one is able to produce the local accent but doesn’t fully understand the local culture, the locals may say some cultural things that only another local would understand then wonder why one didn’t understand the cultural reference/joke.

  7. Lily says:

    I don’t think it matters too much. I expect I have an accent even though I try and copy the sounds as closely as possible in my chosen language (Portuguese). I think I am lucky in that I have a musical ear and this seems to help with hearing the different sounds and nuances of sound.
    In my experience of night school classes it seems some people (I don’t know if this an English thing!) feel self-conscious if they try to copy the accent of a native speaker however I think it is much better to strive to speak in the style of a target language speaker. I listen closely to intonation as that changes a lot as well.
    Being understood is most important but it’s hard to be understood if your accent is so broad that the other person can hardly understand you! I would love to be mistaken for a native speaker but I think realistically I will always speak with a trace of Englishness.
    All that said, accents are very attractive!

  8. James says:

    Unless you are totally incomprensible, whether it matters or not depends on the speaker. I was a pro musician before I did my degrees and have always been into accents and for me, yes it does matter a great deal. People always tell me that I don´t have the normal “gringo” accent at all in Spanish, but they are not sure what it is after that… At the moment my other mistakes (of picturesque Spanish, not knowing the word for pollyfiller/spackle etc) sort of trump the accent mistakes and give me away. I had voice classes for a while, as the way I was speaking was a real problem for my job.

    Obviously I´m not Chilean (I pronounce all the letters), I´ve been told (by people who were not being polite) “impossible to tell where you are from”, “strange, can´t describe it”, “spanish without the lisp”, “totally neutral”. I am presently in love with the Guatemalan accent, which is unspeakably beautiful (and I am doing two weeks of language study there in Feb next year). Part of my problem is that I don´t have ONE regional accent which I am copying (eg Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala) which means it sounds rather unrooted. I think I need to get married, (preferibly to a Guatemalan, Mexican or Colombian). I would rather sound “strange” than Chilean (lovely friendly people, frequently very physically attractive, universally horrible accent)

    J

  9. Ashley says:

    I was so thrilled when in France I was finally asked whether or not I was French Canadian (instead of the usual switch to English). I found that if I even faltered in pronunciation, French natives assumed that I couldn’t speak French at all. While it’s nice to display your identity, I would think that the better one’s pronunciation is, the easier communication tends to be.

  10. hasan says:

    the fact that u speak a language with a foriegn accent isn’t that bad as long as people understand u. but if u wana integrate in a new society then i beleive that one must have a proper accent or else u will always be treated as an alien

  11. Fran says:

    This is so interesting. I have been in this country for 19 years, I have had all sort of comments. From the very flattering – your English is excellent – to the more critical – After all these years you still have an accent? I am Italian and have managed, along the years, to disguise my accent by ‘not shouting’ – a very common tendency of Italians and it worked. I have tried my best to acquire a near a native accent as possible to sound ‘English’ but because my vocal cord are not trained to sound English or probably I am not a good mimic….I come across as being Spanish or French, which is fair enough for me. The only people who thought I was actually from this country were foreigners thinking I was actually from UK as my English was good. I was on the phone just 5 minutes ago and this lady told me: ‘After all these years you still have an accent though’. Well, I came to this country when I was 24, I am now 42, as stated in Simon’s message, David Crystal has quoted something so true in his blog, and unless you acquire it at a very young age it is almost impossible to sound exactly like a native. In Italy there are thousands of foreigneres speaking fluent Italian but I have never found one who you wouldn’t notice he wasn’t from a different country. Still, I love to hear foreigners speaking Italian with an accent, it is so appealing, plus, it is such a difficult language to learn that I am in owe. Having said all this….why does it matter to some people? We are all individual with our own identity which we should treasure dearly.

  12. DA says:

    Accents are great. They define us (or they define the language teachers we had!). However, if they become the main focus for the listener, then they detract from what is being said, and that is bad news for the speaker.

  13. ROBERTO says:

    I agree with the previous comments which argue that it is not that important to have a native accent in the language. Language is primarily a means of communication and if the other person can understand you, you have accomplished your goal of attempting to communicate. Though I believe that the accent should be close to the original, in order to be understood and to not insult the other person. But most likely you will have a foreign accent no matter what you do– especially in English.

    Thank you,

    Roberto