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.