When I first moved to Mexico, I made my friends order for me at restaurants.
Why would I do this when I spoke Spanish?
It’s simple. I had an English accent, and speaking with an accent made it hard for native Spanish speakers to understand what I was saying.
Every time I ordered, the waiter would say, “Excuse me?” and look at me as if I had horns coming out of my forehead or as if I had asked to eat boogers for dinner.
What is it like to speak with an accent?
What is an accent? It’s basically the way your voice sounds when you speak. The Linguistics Society of America defines a foreign accent as the way you sound “when a person speaks one language using some of the rules or sounds of another one.” Who wants to say the same thing again and again if the way of pronouncing it isn’t going to get any better?!
It made me feel, well, stupid. Speaking with an accent often means repeating yourself again and again, hoping to be understood.
Even though I knew that I personally wasn’t stupid, I knew that my lips and tongue couldn’t form the sounds needed in order to get them to bring me a salad, and I was frustrated and annoyed!
It’s Scary to Try to Speak in Another Language as an Adult.
When we were 3 years old, learning our first language, we didn’t know that we were saying things incorrectly (nor did we care), but as adults, we know enough to feel insecure and self-conscious. Therefore, we don’t want to do it. We ask others to order for us or talk for us. We don’t want to feel dumb.
My grandpa came to this country when he was 25, which is generally too old to have a native English-speaker accent. To this day (he’s 86 now) he refuses to put a message on the answering machine because he doesn’t like to hear his Spanish accent when speaking in English. He feels ashamed. Even though he shouldn’t.
People with Foreign Accents are Brave, Incredible People.
They’ve left everything they know behind (whether to move to another country, or even just to go on vacation!) and come to discover something foreign, awkward, opposite of what they know, strange, bizarre, ridiculous, and even plain horrible.
People with accents have decided to throw caution to the wind and have said, “I don’t care if I look stupid. I want to see Peru, and I want to try to speak to Peruvians, and I want to talk with them while I’m eating Alpaca and cuy, and I don’t want to speak in my language while I do it!”
Or, even scarier, they have said, “We need to move because the schools in France are better, and I want my children to have more than what I had. We need to learn this new language in order to get jobs and support ourselves in this new country that we want to live in.”
I got to Experience this Feeling of Stupidity Again Last Week in Peru.
99% of the time they understood me, but every so often, when I was extra tired and my tongue was lazy and not pronouncing the RRs or not making the ‘o’ as in oh and not as in ah…, someone would ask me to repeat myself.
And there was the feeling again: ugh, I’m just not good at this language! (I’m a Spanish teacher, mind you.)
But now I don’t let that feeling sit with me for more than a second.
Because I’m brave!
I’m in Peru!
I’m eating Alpaca! (Don’t judge me, I didn’t eat the cuy… what’s cuy? Go look it up! (says the teacher : )).
I’m Speaking the Language!
So what if I have to repeat myself from time to time!
When salespeople tried to switch to English after hearing my accent, I would confidently answer them in Spanish:
“I speak Spanish, so let’s please use it. I’m in your country. It’s the least I can do.” Speaking with an accent is ok.
Accents are Beautiful, but We also Want to be Understood When Speaking a Foreign Language.
When you can reduce your accent, it is easier to speak on the phone and it makes it easier for others to understand you. We’ve got four ways to improve a strong accent if you’re looking to make a difference. If you’re an HR professional or working with someone who is difficult to understand because of their foreign accent, here’s our guide to asking for accent training.
Learning how to reduce your accent when speaking a foreign language can lead to more business, better relationships, more clients, and a better work environment.