Sixth in the series Accent through the keyhole. Scroll down for the mp3 podcast version.
Why are you illustrating this post with a picture of a mouthless face?
Well, everybody has an accent, just like everybody has a mouth, right? If you speak at all, you speak with an accent. So on the face of it, the idea of “getting rid of your accent” is about as nonsensical as “getting rid of your mouth”. When I google “getting rid of your accent”, I get close to two million hits. So it looks like people want to know about getting rid of their accent, whatever that might mean. When I google “getting rid of your mouth” on the other hand, I get just over 30,000 hits, but only as part of a longer phrase such as “getting rid of your mouth ulcer”. Nobody wants to get rid of their mouth entirely, despite the obvious advantages for shaving and dental care.
OK, but you know what people mean when they talk about getting rid of an accent?
Well, it must make sense to some of the two million internet users who posted the phrase, and that’s what I’d like to meditate on here. I think my nonsense interpretation came from stressing the word “accent”. If instead I stress the word “your”, then a whole new meaning comes into play. Something like: learning to speak in a way which doesn’t immediately betray your specific personal background. But it’s not getting rid of your accent and replacing it with nothing. It’s getting rid of one accent and replacing it with another. Or more likely, adding another accent to your repertoire, since you’ll probably be able to go back to the old one whenever you want to.
Can you give an example?
Yes, there’s a person I know from Liverpool who, on joining the army, got fed up having a label attached to him as soon as he spoke – “that guy from Liverpool”. He single-mindedly tutored himself to “get rid of” his local accent, and now he speaks with an RP (received pronunciation) accent – so he’s identifiably English, but can’t be pinned down any more locally than that.
He sounds quite unusual. I guess most people aren’t so self-aware of their own accent.
No, perhaps not. To our own ears, our own accent is no accent. It’s transparent. I mean, here are some phrases you’re very unlikely to hear, and not just for reasons of modesty:
“I’m real proud of my lazy Texan drawl”
“Get a load of my cheeky Cockney twang”
“Don’t you just love my sensuous Brazilian lilt?”
"They're dead good, me flat northern vowels"
(This is fun. Try adding some more accent phrases you’re never likely to hear in the comments section) Our own accent only becomes an accent relative to someone else’s. Hence, if people talk about their own accent, it’s likely to be reporting what other people say about it. For example, you may hear things like “People in London usually notice that I have a northern accent”. Being deaf to your own accent explains the surprise value in this advertising slogan, spotted on the London underground: “Come to Las Vegas – where your accent is an aphrodisiac”. Your ordinary is somebody else’s exotic.
And why is it that some people keep the same accent, come what may?
It’s true that not everybody wants to “get rid” of their accent – or better said, acquire a new one. When I was at secondary school, French was the default foreign language, but very few of us students wanted to acquire French accents in French class. Sounding more French meant doing things with your lips that simply didn’t fit in with your self-image. Sounding more French exposed you to ridicule from your peers – you didn’t want to sound different. My French class was a context where worse is better. But interestingly, peer pressure can work the opposite way too. You can deliberately be different from your peers. A person with a Manchester accent may choose to maintain it even when most of his or her peers have a London accent. Defying peer pressure in this way can maybe feel more authentic, as if you are being more true to your roots.
Sounds like motivation in accent choices are quite complex.
Yes. And even if you yourself are not conscious of your own motivations, others may look for them. If I, an English person in England, start speaking with an American accent, people are going to wonder why. Is it some kind of joke? Am I trying to sound like someone in the movies? Am I trying to imply that I’m more worldly than my peers? Am I an actor training myself for a part? A spy? If I go to America and start speaking with an American accent, what does this say about me? That I’m too eager to ingratiate myself? That I’m ashamed of where I’m from? There’s a lot more to accent than just intelligibility – there’s the whole thing about identity too. Some people have a fluid accent identity and slip between accents like a chameleon changes colour. Others persist with one accent whatever.
Those two million Google hits for “getting rid of your accent”: who are they addressed to?
Mainly, it would seem, to immigrants in America. People who already speak English, but do so with an accent that betrays their origin as Hispanic or Asian or whatever. People who find that they need to assimilate, whether or not they feel happy about doing so. One reason being that often, the locals in a given country will not make the extra effort required to communicate if the interlocutor happens to have a foreign accent. The assumption is, “You’re on my turf, so it’s you who has to make the effort”. Or worse: “I’m not willing to understand you - you’ve got no right to be here”. Potential employers may have the attitude: “I think your accent would give a bad impression to my clients”. Regrettably, the imperative to “get rid of your accent” can be quite coercive!
That’s in the context of immigration. What about the situation for learners of English around the world more generally?
Well, in that context, the pressure to assimilate to a specific native speaker accent no longer exists. You don’t need to “get rid of your accent” in favour of some local norm. You are joining a global community of people for whom English is a lingua franca, and in this community, there is no norm. Accent variability is the order of the day. You can speak the way you want to speak (within the limits of intelligibility) but you have to tolerate other people doing the same. There’s no problem having a Russian accent, for example, as long as you don’t mind the person you’re speaking to having a Spanish one. Here’s a slogan to sum it up: pronounce locally, understand globally.
Last Week: Accent Creep