That Accent Though

There’s always that one girl who says, “I love men with accents.” Well, what kind of accent? Accents are always very particular things with people, especially this hypothetical girl, because what she means is probably a man with a European (probably British or Italian) accent. While people may not make fun of you for having an accent (though some definitely will), they won’t see you the same way if you didn’t have an accent. This is very evident in India, where the slightest country twangs and upper class pretensions are taken into account. My dad (though he will never admit this), when reserving a restaurant for my birthday while we were in India three years ago, used a British accent to talk to the host on the other end. This came somewhat as a surprise, because I expected him to say it Kannada. My grandfather explained that people who speak English, especially, “without an accent,” (which is to say with a British accent or American accent), are given priority in reservations and such. Even if they tack on a couple thousand rupees, it’s apparently worth it to get the restaurant to wait for you while you’re stuck in heavy Indian traffic.

People who speak English natively usually notice when someone has an accent, but have no problem saying that a person is fluent if that person has great command over the language. Some might argue that accent doesn’t matter as long as you get your point across. Some might also say that accent shouldn’t be used to judge language proficiency. If native speakers think that your speech sounds unnatural, weird, or is hard to understand, you cannot be called fluent.

I believe that accent plays a very big role in how people view each other, not simply in terms of societal views that judge people. Accent distinguishes people via background, social status, and other criteria. It’s a mechanism for people to categorize people, and also find other people from their background when they’re away from home.

But, English is a special case. As an international language, it has the status of having multiple accepted accents around the world. However, for nearly every other language, this is not the case. Most languages in the world have very restricted subsets of what are considered, “correct,” accents within the standards of a particular language. As one of my Chinese friends put it, one person who speaks Mandarin with Fuzhou accent and another that speaks with a Shanghai accent are both fluent with “correct,” accents. But a French person that has a French accent when he or she speaks Mandarin (even if it’s the standardized version spoken in Beijing) is not considered fluent. I agree with this, and I think that part of learning a language (eventually), entails learning to perfect the accent.

Accent is very closely linked to pronunciation. Pronunciation makes up maybe 65% of one’s accent, and the remaining 25% is speech rhythm and cadence. Speech rhythm is how it sounds when somebody talks, and you describe it as, “singsongy,” or, “choppy.” Cadence is when you describe the way someone speaks as, “gravely,” or, “measured.” These are things one should learn eventually, and it goes without saying that the last two can only be learned by listening to native speakers. Accent is not necessarily something people use to judge and criticize. But it is important to try and sound as native as possible when learning another language! Feel free to leave any comments you might have!

The Stigma Against Europe in America

When I started learning Portuguese, I was surprised at how the Brazilian and European (also known as continental) versions are so different. However, I realized this wasn’t completely out of the question, considering that Latin American and European (also known as Castilian) Spanish are also somewhat different (though not to the degree that Brazilian and European Portuguese are). Old World powers that, back in the day, colonized abroad successfully, also transported their languages to these places as well. Words from indigenous languages, and words for things specific to the contexts in the New World came into being. The four most successful powers were Britain, Spain, France, and Portugal (poor little Italy didn’t have its act together yet). You might actually notice that the entirety of political North America is former colonial territory. Many of the colonies of these countries gained their independence from their European motherlands, except for France, which effectively had to give up Canada to Britain after the French and Indian War.

Given all this, the colonial versions of the languages of these countries had their own circumstances to develop within. In modern day America, where people from all over the world immigrate to, many people learn Spanish, Portuguese, and French. I realized this only much later, but people in America typically learn the colonial version of these languages. America had a particularly nasty relationship with Britain, and its relations with France were a bit strained, to say the least. Perhaps it’s only natural, then, that in America, many people have cultivated a distaste for European things (aside from wine that is).

Most people in America will learn Brazilian Portuguese, because people forget about Portugal entirely (Portugal kind of disappears after the colonial era in most history books), and also most Portuguese-speaking immigrants are likely to be Brazilian. Similarly, French speakers in America are likely to be French Canadian, and most Spanish speakers are likely to be from Latin America. Sure, you could argue that it’s just a matter of convenience, but I think there’s more to it than that. Canadians, Brazilians, and Latin Americans are well aware that there exist European counterparts to their languages, in a similar way to how Americans are aware of British English.

But I’m certain that there is some stigma against the European versions. You can see it everywhere, particularly in the media. Europeans, no matter where they’re from, are frequently depicted as pompous, heavily accented, and/or flamboyant. In English, to make someone sound like they’re very proper or uptight, we put on a British accent, for God’s sake!

Up until around my third year of Spanish, I knew virtually nothing about Spain or its particular brand of Spanish. People are often advised to learn the colonial variant because it’s easier to understand, which to a degree, is true. Speakers of Brazilian Portuguese tend to be very distinct when they speak Portuguese, whereas their European counterparts chop off the ends of words, and speak with what is called boca fechada, or “closed mouth.” The seseo, or ceceo (which is the Spanish word for the way you distinguish s, c, and z), of Spain, is often considered an impediment to comprehension when learning. This is because it is not discussed until the latter years of learning.

I have a friend with whom I practice Spanish, and I do try to use the Castilian accent, because I don’t get to hear or use it otherwise (I use the Latin American pronunciation in class, because that’s what’s expected). He doesn’t really mind, but he has said that he thinks that the Castilian accent sounds pretentious. I don’t really see how it’s pretentious, considering that everyone in Spain speaks that way. I’m also learning the European version of Portuguese as well, because it resembles Spanish more, and also because my particular book teaches the European form.

I’m further convinced by the conversations I’ve had with Latin American Spanish speakers and Brazilians that there is a distinctly American aversion to the European versions. Brazilians say that it’s kind of amusing to hear the European version in a conversation, but that’s mostly because they don’t hear it every day. Latin Americans don’t really care one way or another. Overall, they don’t really mind the European version of their language, even if it might be a little harder to understand. This could be because they are taught in school that this other version exists, and that it’s not worse or better than their own. Not that Americans are taught that their English is better than that of the British. In fact, when I was in elementary school, they didn’t even tell us that there was this other way of speaking English, and we only heard about it through TV and other media.

The point here is that in America, language classes should address the predominant forms of a language, especially when it comes to word choice, pronunciation, or even grammar. Language is inherently global, so it’s only fair that you learn about (though not necessarily learn entirely) the other versions. For example, I would say that it’s appropriate for a class to cover Brazilian and European Portuguese, but not for Swiss and Peninsular Italian. The latter two are not different enough to warrant extensive coverage on both, especially considering how close they are. Similarly, you cover Hindi and Urdu distinctly in the same class, but not two very similar varieties of Russian. You might say that Latin American Spanish and European Spanish aren’t different enough, because a Spaniard and Peruvian can understand each something like 90% of the time. But they are, considering pronunciation, word choice, and expressions (and the fact that two different versions of Disney and other movies exist for Latin America and Spain).

I hope you enjoyed reading this post, and I hope to get more out soon! Please leave some comments if you have any! Please note, that my statements about what Latin Americans and Brazilians say about their European counterparts are from personal experience. I’m only saying these things based on what I know, have read, and learned.