Saturday 28 July 2007

On sounding British, not

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.


Anonymous said...

Well, I've notice an inverse snobbery creeping in. I love 'Brief Encounter'-style accents, and yet they are now almost universally mocked.

Yet I can hardly understand modern 'yoof' English, even the posh version, with its flat vowels, which I find very ugly.

For example, try the Harry Potter movies. I love the Harry Potter books, and they've done creditable jobs of turning them into films. But although I'm a native Brit who grew up in the sixties, I find it hard to understand what Daniel Radcliffe is saying! Compare that with the delicious honied tones of the grown-up stars - Alan Rickman, for example.

Do the kids need elocution lessons, or do I need hearing lessons?

DC said...

I've seen some of the HP films, and I must say I haven't had a problem. It's always possible for an accent - any accent, including RP - to be spoken so casually as to become unintelligible to members of the peer-group to which its speakers belong, but it's unlikely such speakers would be allowed by their peers to carry on like that for long. And in the case of public language, as in films, radio, etc, one would certainly not expect this to happen - especially in films intended for an international market, where it is well known that regional accent differences can present difficulties. Dialect coaches and other consultants listen out for this sort of thing, and accents are often modified to make speech more intelligible. A case in point was the two lead girls in the sitcom 'Birds of a Feather', who both had to modify their originally very Cockney speech in this way. I don't know whether any such thing happened in the case of the HP films, but I doubt it, for the kind of speech used by Daniel Radcliffe is widespread and by no means restricted to his age-set. I hear it all the time from my kids and grandkids, and have never had any problem with it. Familiarity breeds content, with accents, I find. Maybe the reason for the problem in this case is that you don't give the accent a chance because you've already written it off as ugly by comparison with the other accents which you esteem. I don't find any accent ugly, I must say.

Anonymous said...

While I was studying English Philology at the University in Poland, we spend hours and hours repeating English sentences in RP English. Being fluent and completely legible in English wasn’t enough. They wanted us to speak ‘good’ or ‘proper English’ and those of us who couldn’t get rid of our Polish accent were condemned. When I started the university I was confident of my English, but the longer I studied there the more and more embarrassed I felt about it!!! Many of us stopped talking part in conversation classes because we couldn’t take any more criticism!!!!

It wasn’t until I arrived to Britain couple of years ago when I was praised for my English. I re-gained my linguistic confidence and now I’m a student of Phonetics and Linguistics at the University in London.

So I ask myself a question: ‘What was wrong with my accent? And what is wrong with any foreign accent? Why were my university teachers (who were Polish themselves, by the way) trying to hide our Polish accent and made us cry at the phonetics seminars when we couldn’t say a sentence ‘properly’ with RP accent?’

I hope that the attitude will change one day. It must change. Getting rid of your accent is like trying to get rid of your roots, identity, being embarrassed of who you are… If you can speak foreign language, be proud of it! And if someone is criticizing your accent remember that not everyone is lucky enough of being able to communicate in a foreign language!!!

DC said...

Exactly. And the new attitude will spread if and when people like you start teaching.

Anonymous said...

"The accents convey the speakers' identities, and that is an important element in knowing who I am talking to… Why should anyone want to lose their identity so completely, in speaking a foreign language?"

I assume, then, that you have never lived in another language. I am a native RP speaker (we do exist), who learnt Spanish aged 29 and now live and teach at university level in Spanish in Chile. I had a big struggle with the whole issue of accent. I did the first part of my first degree in linguistics, so I "know" that all accents are equal. But experience has shown me that some accents are more equal than others, and the Chilean accent is very hard for non Chileans to understand (i.e. native Spanish speakers), and it is rather high pitched and puts pressure on the voice. I was finding that teaching for a 2 hour lecture in my approximation of the Chilean accent was leaving me with a very sore throat, I couldn´t speak loudly in it and my non Chilean students couldn´t always understand what I was trying to say. So I had voice lessons, now speak at the same pitch in both languages (which is a lot lower than most Chileans), feel that I am actually speaking a real language rather than playing a game, can project, speak for hours and no longer sound English (I have not quite attained spy-level phonology as I don´t have any decent non-chilean models around me. I guess I need a Guatemalan, Colombian or Mexican wife; BBC Mundo and Colombian Radio Caracol is not quite enough ;) )

Now as to identity, the whole point of accent is trying to reinvent yourself in the new culture: "reinvent" not in the sense of changing who you are, but rather in the sense of *being able to be who you* are in the second language, rather than the stupid foreigner you have suddenly turned into. Maybe it would be different if I had an English speaking family, but I don´t. So I am looking forward to my 2 weeks of language study in Guatemala next February in our long summer holidays.

James (excuse any errors in my English. I don´t use it too much at the moment)

DC said...

The critical point is: 'my non Chilean students couldn´t always understand what I was trying to say'. Remember that in my post I stressed the priority of being intelligible, and then - only then - the issues of identity apply. How far people then go is up to them.

I like the way you put it, about people being able to be who they are in an L2. What I'm arguing against is the mindset that a foreign accent is in some way intrinsically demeaning - as suggested by the collocation 'stupid foreigner'.

Anonymous said...

Well, of course, in language learning accent and general language proficiency normally go together; it´s more the inability to say what you want which turns you into a stupid foreigner (and believe me, if you have not done it you don´t know how horrible it is to go from being an articulate Dr to being unable to ask people to pass you the water or not be sure how to ask someone if they slept well.I really had no Spanish before i went to live in Spain to learn).

My grandfather is trilingual (Polish, German, English) and has a strong Polish accent for all three. I apparently have (or had) no definable accent in Spanish, French or German (though the last two have atrophied beyond active use over the last decade they used to be SW France and vaguely southern German), and can easily pass as Scottish when I get going(I lived in Glasgow for 3 months).

So sorry for fusing accent and language proficiency: initially they typically go together, but they sometimes then split. My grandfather has been speaking english for over 60 years (he´s in his 90s) and his accent is still as strong as ever and he is far from stupid.


(and again excuse spelling: I frequently now spel words like filosofy in a very Spanish way!)

DC said...

Yes, I've done it, several times. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said (in his Journals), 'No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby - so helpless and so ridiculous'.

But, to return to the subject of the original post, that's a different matter from trying to perfect a native accent, which I believe is an unnecessary step, even though there can be perfectly understandable reasons for trying to achieve it.

Anonymous said...

Isn't English a special case though because it's used internationally as a communications platform? And for that reason accents are irrelevant since there are so many international varieties (and it's often used as the in-between language)? For better or for worse, we can't really claim it as 'ours' any more...

DC said...

I think this certainly is an important factor: the sheer diversity of accents in the English-speaking world must eventually help to develop greater accent tolerance - though I doubt it will ever eliminate negative attitudes completely. Accent diversity will be heard in any language that has developed an international presence, of course; English isn't a special case in that respect.

Rishi Khanna said...

I am posting a comment on an older post but i do hope you will respond. As an Indian, who has travelled widely and also studied in the US, i have often wondered why we indians including myself tend to (try to)mask our accent while speaking in English. Over the years I realized that individually or collectively this was really a self esteem issue, or a colonial hangover of sorts. I "outgrew" this tendency eventually. In your remarks professor you have mentioned that if one does change one's accent it should be for a "positive reason". Sometimes the line between a positive and negative reason blurs. if one wants to avoid prejudice on the first instance that one interacts with say a British or an American person, one does "put on" an accent which is more neutral and not what is considered "typically indian" as the response one gets (in a business dealing for example) is usually better. over time this becomes a second nature and also doesn't seem "fake" anymore. But recently a good american friend of mine said something that got me thinking again. I found him imitating an indian sales person in a store in beverly hills. i asked him "whats so funny about the way he is talking? why is it that you dont find a french or an italian person speaking in less intelligible english funny?". He said "because we americans find the french and italian english "cool" but the indian english "goofy". So i guess, if this is indeed how people feel, its a reflection of their views of the indian nation vs the italian or french nation, that then gets reflected into their view on the accent. attitude towards the country leads to attitude towards the accent and not independent of that. To me italian and spanish english can be very difficult to understand at times but is still tolerated and not mocked. Would like to hear your comments on this. Would also reccomend a book to you (should you have a broader interest in the effects of colonializm in India) - called "Becoming Indian" by Pavan Varma, which makes some very interesting observations and inferences on similar issues but not just related to language. I am also reminded here of the prejudices in our own country against our own language. When we call mcdonalds delivery (yes they deliver in india) they try their best to speak to you in broken english. even if you try speaking with them in hindi, they persist in english, until you make it known clearly you wish to be spoken to in Hindi. I don't know whats the future of language in india. our native languages, "hinglish" or "correct english". I really think we need a vision for this. Would love to hear your comments.

DC said...

Well I wouldn't base any generalization on the opinions of a guy who believes that all Americans think in the same way that he does. I know of several Hispanic people who have had their accents mocked. Indeed, I have never encountered an accent that hasn't been mocked by some people at some time. He may well have been trying to be politically correct, knowing that if he dared to mock Spanish speakers in California he'd be in real trouble.

Accent variation of the kind you mention is perfectly normal. Everyone changes their accent depending on circumstances, sometimes subtly, sometimes noticeably. In sociolinguistics, it's chiefly discussed under the heading of accommodation.

I wouldn't dream of trying to suggest a vision for Indian speakers. That has to come from them. All people like me can do is present the situation in general terms, discuss various models, and trust to individuals to adapt these principles to their own circumstances. If a new climate of opinion emerges in India, it is people like you who will have helped to form it.