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:

References

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.

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