A correspondent writes from Tehran worried about his English accent. He speaks English fluently, he says, but with a Persian accent which he finds 'very funny', and he goes on: 'is there any hope for me to speak English with an English or American accent? I am 26 years old and I am young enough to change my accent. I would really like to speak English with a good accent and not a Persian accent.'
Well I don't find the Persian accent - or any foreign accent - 'funny'' or 'bad' at all. If the sound system of a language has been mastered to the extent that speech is intelligible, then that suffices. I love hearing the range of identities that manifest themselves in English through foreign accents - a French accent, a German accent, a Persian accent, and so on. The accents convey the speakers' identites, and that is an important element in knowing who I am talking to. Exactly the ssme sort of thing happens to me when I go abroad. I speak whatever language it is in a distinctly British accent - and why not?
Why should anyone want to lose their identity so completely, in speaking a foreign language? Surely the only people who want to merge so totally into a new language that their ethnic origins cannot be noticed are spies? In fact it is very rare indeed for someone to develop a phonetic ability to the extent that their foreign origins are totally masked.
I can understand where my correspondent is coming from, of course. There was a time, in imperial days, when Received Pronunciation ruled (in British-influenced parts of the world) and foreign accents were risible. So were local UK regional accents. Speakers of such accents were often made to feel embarassed or inferior. It is only in the last 20 years or so that we have entered a new era of interest, tolerance, and respect for non-RP varieties of English. In 1980 the BBC's Radio 4 tried out a Scots-speaking presenter and hastily withdrew her when complaints built up. In 2005 the BBC celebrated all British accents in its Voices project. That is how far the climate has changed. Mocking accents, in an increasingly multi-ethnic world, is slowly being seen to be as anti-social as is mocking colour or dress.
It will take longer for these new attitudes to influence speakers abroad, but it will come. One reason for the lag is the existence in many parts of the world of an expat community of older citizens whose attitudes were formed a generation or two ago, and they inevitably influence local opinion. Another reason is that the phonetic norms and attitudes taught in many ELT institutions, especially in universities, are still focused sharply on RP - often displaying a conservative kind of RP which has long since disappeared from the UK - and I have often encountered there a reluctance to accept that other types of accent, and especially the local accents of the community, have a value.
Things are changing, though, as a result of new regional norms emerging around the English-speaking world. When millions of people speak English in a locally distinctive way - educated people alongside uneducated - then it does not take long for a tipping-point to be reached, and it becomes as pointless to condemn an accent in India or Nigeria for being non-RP as it would be to condemn Australians or Americans for speaking in the way they do. One needs to achieve a standard of international intelligibility, but that still leaves enormous scope for accent variation. In the end, it is a matter of confidence and pride.
When people adopt a language as a medium of communication, they immediately adapt it, to suit the new circumstances. A local accent is an inevitable and natural consequence. So I say to my Iranian correspondent: do not think of your Persian accent as being 'bad' or 'funny'. By all means move towards a British or American norm if you want to, but do this for positive reasons (eg a desire to identify more closely with those cultures) and not for negative reasons. However, as long as your accent is sufficiently clear that you are capable of being understood by people from outside your country, I wouldn't bother trying to change it at all.