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!