Pardon my foreign accent!

This post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

In an increasingly multilingual world, more and more people are exposed to foreign accents, and if we use foreign languages ourselves, the chances are that we have our very own foreign accent.  Does a foreign accent matter?  Yes, says Moyer (2013) because it is so salient: “it is the means by which we make ourselves understood, and the yardstick by which others judge us, whether we like it or not”. A foreign accent can have unexpected social consequences.  Indeed, those with a strong foreign accent are often judged as less competent, less educated, less intelligent, and less trustworthy (Fuertes et al, 2011).  In other words, a foreign accent can be a heavy burden. Veronica Glab (2014), a Canadian-born Pole currently living in Madrid, describes how her “Polish and American accents came up like bile” when speaking Spanish, and how it made her feel like an outsider, causing a sense of failure.

It is really hard to get rid of a foreign accent when the foreign language learning started later in life as Glab can testify.  Only a small minority of late learners manage to speak a foreign language with a native-like accent.  They are typically people with good auditory working memory, i.e. people who can keep sounds in their short term memory for a longer time.  Other psycho-cognitive predictors are phonetic coding ability, an ability to sing and a high level of empathy (Hu et al, 2012).

Personality has also been mentioned by multilinguals as having an effect on their attitudes towards foreign accents. Glab wonders whether her foreign accent might be linked to her timidness and self-consciousness.

Having a slight French-Dutch accent in English, I was never too bothered by it as English speakers usually like French accents, which they tend to find “cute”.  My accent became a liability only once, in 2003, at the time of the second Gulf war.  Having been stopped for speeding in Independence, California, by a patriotic police officer, who told me the helicopter had followed me for half an hour through the desert, and caught me going over the 60 miles per hour limit .  Did I have an explanation for that?  My answer, but probably even more my French accent, did not please the officer.  Didn’t I realise, he asked, that the French were not welcome in the US? (It was the time of the “Liberty fries” – because the Americans weren’t allowed to use the F-word anymore).  I hastened to point out that I was Belgian, and that Belgium had not voted against the US in the UN.  Little did it matter.  My infraction, compounded by my French accent cost me $ 150.

What this little episode shows is that attitudes toward foreign accents vary according to the accent in question, and to the general socio-historical context.  It also shows that different people have different attitudes.  So what exactly affects attitudes towards foreign accents? We explored this question more systematically in a study that just came out (Dewaele & McCloskey, 2014). We collected data on attitudes towards the foreign accents of other people and the own foreign accent via an online questionnaire.  A total of 2035 multilinguals from around the world participated. We found that extraverted multilinguals, who were emotionally stable and tolerant of ambiguity were significantly less bothered by the foreign accents of others. Only more neurotic multilinguals were bothered by their own foreign accent. Unexpectedly, participants who knew more languages to a higher level were more negative about the foreign accent of others and their own. However, participants who grew up in an ethnically diverse environment, who had lived abroad and who were working in an ethnically diverse environment were significantly more positive about foreign accents. Women had a more negative attitude towards their own foreign accent – but not that of others.

It thus seems that how much we are bothered by foreign accents falls partly outside our conscious control as it depends on personality, language learning history, current linguistic practices and sociobiographical background.

Other posts by Professor Dewaele:


Dewaele, J.-M. & McCloskey, J. (2014). Attitudes towards Foreign accents among adult multilingual language users. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development

Fuertes, J.N., Gottdiener, W.H., Martin, H., Gilbert, T.C., & Giles, H. (2011). A meta-analysis of the effects of speakers’ accents on interpersonal evaluations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 120-133.

Hu, X., Ackermann, H., Martin, J.A., Erb, M., Winkler, S., & Reiterer, S. (2012). Language aptitude for pronunciation in advanced second language (L2) learners: Behavioural predictors and neural substrates. Brain and Language doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2012.11.006.

Moyer, A. (2013). Foreign Accent: The Phenomenon of Non-native Speech. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

5 thoughts on “Pardon my foreign accent!

  1. Who cares if you have an accent? You learned the language! And how much would it have cost to follow you in a helicopter for half an hour? Holy cow! Must have been a slow day.

    • It does matter whether someone has a foreign accent or not. If that person wants to integrate into society, but has a strong foreign accent which as the article suggests means that they are than ‘often judged as less competent, less educated, less intelligent, and less trustworthy’ will make integration that much harder and it can have a strong effect on someone’s emotional wellbeing and life in their chosen country that much harder.

      • The times when people’s foreign accents do matter are in situations where someone is in an occupation where others need to be able to understand. Quite often on trains or in stations announcements in unintelligle English to me. Once a French woman gave out an announcement on a tube platform and I didn’t understand her. Another tube official, also foreign, said that was racist. No, it was not. I can’t imagine Parisians being very happy with announcements by an English speaker with a very strong English accent in French. Similarly when I interpret for health professionals who communicate easily with their compatriots back in English, but pronounce some things with such a strong accent that I have to ask them to repeat themselves, then I think they need to go on coaching courses for pronunciation. It might be okay in India or Nigeria, but it is critical when a patient or interpreter in Britain cannot understand the health professional. I don’t expect native-speaker standard, but at least more intelligible to the British ear. I don’t think this is unreasonable.

  2. Oh, Professor Dewaele, what a delightful story!
    Years ago my husband and I were driving through Madrid, when a traffic policeman stopped us – we seemed to have ignored a “vital” traffic-sign. When the policeman started to explain, aggressively, his reason for the fine (Multa) he was about to give us, which we had to paid him in cash there and then, I explained, in perfect Spanish, that we had seen the sign but that it was pointing to the opposite street (some joker had moved it). He told me that as I was a visitor I/We had to produce official identification, etc. All documentation was provided, relating to the rented car, but we had no identification of ourselves! I kept telling him that I was Spanish and from Madrid, etc., but that I had lived in London over thirty (30) years – I’m still here, now 50 years – and was married to an Englishman – the driver! He was not convinced. I immediately begun to use words long forgotten, and never allowed at home when I was young (common argot). Only then he relaxed. We ended up on such a friendly mode that he escorted us (on his motorbike) out of the narrow streets. No “Multa” was issued! Yes, accents do count. And knowledge of the language being spoken can be “handy”. Thank you for your story…it made me laugh.

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