Friday, March 17, 2006

American Insecurity

I have a lot of friends and colleagues who aren't native English speakers. All of them have accents, which is no surprise; the few people I have met who speak English without an accent but learned it as adults weren't able to do so by virtue of their intelligence, but because, frankly, they are freaks; their talent, I think, is akin to being able to multiply large numbers instantly or having a photographic memory. In short, there is no shame in having an accent. It is therefore surprising that

1) Non-native speakers are ashamed of their accents when they speak English, and
2) Americans are ashamed of their accents when they speak other languages.

On the face of it, these two facts seems to be one and the same, but, I believe, they are distinct. How so? Well, recently I had the same conversation on two occasions with two different people, both of whom spoke fine English, albeit with accents. They each pressed me to give minute feedback on their English, because they were mortified at the thought of sounding non-native. I assured them that when Americans hear someone speaking with an accent, their instinctive response is to be impressed, not just at the ability of foreigners to speak English, but with their very foreignness. So when foreigners are embarrassed about their accents, they are fundamentally misunderstanding how they are perceived. Why do they do so? Well, the answer is related to why Americans are embarrassed about their own accents. When we Americans trot out our Spanish, French or Mandarin, and cringe at our own accents, we know we are not the only ones cringing; so too are our interlucutors. Not everyone is impressed by a foreign accent. Indeed, I think Americans, while perhaps not unique in this regard, are certainly exceptional in our overall positive attitude towards accents. This positivity can be explained several ways. On the one hand, Americans have long had experience with immigration and large-scale language acquisition, something the rest of the world has not experienced to the same extent for the same amount of time. But I think the primary reason is that we just have a deep-seated insecurity about our own language and culture. When we hear an accent - any accent, I will posit - we think, aha! This is someone from a real place who speaks a real language.

I must admit that I too have the same instinctive reactions; when I hear an accent, I feel distinctly impressed, and when I speak French or Yiddish, I am ashamed of my own (and others') American accent, as well as that of others'. And it goes even deeper; when I hear any foreign accent in Yiddish (the only language other than English that I know well) I have the same negative reaction, be it a Hebrew, Russian, or German accent. In a way, then, when I cease being an Anglophone, I lose my anglophonic openness. Ultimately, though, I know that both my positive and negative feelings about accents are misplaced; an accent should be a neutral thing. And yet it isn't.

I have been thinking about this for most of my life, but not systematically, and there are a number of unresolved issues I wish I knew more about. Firstly, if Americans are not unique in our prejudice in favor of accents, who else shares this prejudice? Secondly, is it that non-Anglophones particularly dislike American accents, or are they equally offended by, say, French or Russian accents? And finally, I do think that Americans' positive impression of non-native speakers is not limited to Europeans; I think we are just as impressed by a Yoruba accent or a Japanese accent as we are by an Italian one. But are there limits? My instinct on this is that we are less impressed by Spanish accents and perhaps strong Chinese accents. If anyone has thoughts about these questions, please let me know.


Aidan Kehoe said...

I’m not from the US, but English is my first language, and I don’t really share the positive attitude you describe to noticeable non-native accents in English. I mean, in general, talking to and dealing with someone through English who has a noticeable non-native accent is not something I have a problem with, I can express myself clearly enough, and I’ve had exposure to enough foreign accents that comprehension is almost never a problem. (One exception is when word stress goes awry, which can make things incomprehensible.)

But when talking to someone with a native-speaker accent, and the effect is more intense when I encounter someone with the accent I grew up with, I’m a little more relaxed, I’m more certain that I can make pop culture references non-native speakers won’t get, that I can use obscure but apt words, that I can predict with a fair degree of accuracy their sense of humour. And this becomes self-fulfilling; someone with no need to understand what a given 80s TV show was about is unlikely to learn about it, or refer to it on their own, a detail that would immediately mark them as comfortable with the local culture.

I noticed in the French-speaking world that as my accent got better the reaction of people on hearing me speak changed; expressions of uncertainty as to whether I had understood something disappeared, people joked more, I laughed more. And my comprehension hadn’t got noticeably better, just my accent.

This contrasts with my experience in Germany--pronouncing things well and clearly doesn’t make things that much easier and doesn’t seem to make the people I’m speaking with noticeably more comfortable. This is, I imagine, because German phonology is less complex than that of English or French, and getting the accent right is one of the first things people learning it as a second language do.

Aidan Kehoe said...

Another thing that may go towards explaining the difference in reaction in Germany is that German orthography is pretty reasonable while both English orthography and that of French are batshit insane, so there is less chance of getting the small details wrong--say, [sɔleɪː] for “soleil” or [sampatik] for “sympathique” as the woman in Pink Martini puts it--for people who learn the written form of a word first, something more common among second-language learners than among first language learners.

Ben said...

Interesting points, Aidan. Ultimately, what you're pointing out is that a speaker is only truly comfortable in his or her native language, and that comfort is contagious, and I think this is true. I also think your point about the relationship between orthography and pronunciation; maybe English speakers are impressed by foreigners just because they have managed to navigate through the minefield of our spelling system.

Matt said...

I think there should be a distinction between different kinds of accents though-- there's the kind where you just can't make certain sounds, but consistently replace them (so you always say "wolf" as "oolf", for example), and the kind where you're obviously just saying words as if they were weird typoes in your own language (the stereotype of the annoying tourist reading flatly from a phrasebook). It's the latter that rubs people the wrong way, because it suggests (sometimes unfairly, sometimes not) a fundamental unwillingness to embrace the language as, well, a language, rather than a kind of degenerate code.

The former, though, is perfectly understandable (due to the regular substitution) AND for exophiles, adds a little glamour too.

Also, unrelated, but a lot of peoples in many countries around the world like it when foreigners speak with an accent (any accent) because it reinforces their belief that their language is the most unique and hardest language in the world, and no foreigner could ever possibly learn it properly.

Ben said...

I like that last suggestion in particular, especially because it supports my general theory - I can't imagine an Anglophone saying the things I've heard people say about Yiddish, French, Twi, and countless other languages - "Oh, it's so expressive! You can't translate it at all! The expression for 'to drop' means 'to let fall' - isn't that beautiful? How could you translate that?" Maybe sometimes we say things like "You can't really translate Shakespeare," but that's due to the fetishization of Shakespeare, not English.

As for the distinction you make, I think it's a real one, but I'm not sure Americans' attitudes reflect them in the way you suggest. If you think about, say, a stereotypical strong French accent, isn't it pretty much like "just saying words as if they were weird typoes in your own language" - a nice simile, incidentally - and yet I know I am, if anything, more impressed the thicker the accent. But maybe that's just me.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with the 1st poster, not totally I meant.I have an accent and sometimes when I start talking to Americans, they stop talking to me. It seems to me that Americans don't like foreigners period.It doens't have anything to do with their wown accents or shame.
My $.02

Learn English said...

Accents are really lovely, and no one should feel self-conscious about their accent. Accents tell the world that we speak more than one language.
This means we are educated, and have a story to tell.
The problem is pronunciation, and that's a problem that is easy to fix with proper practice.