The other day I came across an exchange on one of the French forums I follow that made me smile. One of my New York acquaintances was inquiring if anyone could recommend an accent reduction coach. Sure enough, another acquaintance promptly sent a referral. It got me thinking.
The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear “accent coaching” is the wondrous Meryl Streep and her uncanny ability to speak English, her native language, with a wide array of foreign accents — including British to play Margaret Thatcher not so long ago. As talented as she is, Streep has obviously needed expert help to get there.
Accent reduction coaching is a different animal. What puzzles me is not that some non-native speakers might occasionally feel the need for it, especially in a professional setting. Hey, I have been there myself. Even though having a distinctly French accent is far from an inconvenience in America – as I report here – I sometimes wish my English sounded a bit less “lovely.” But even when I was a banker in New York City it never occurred to me that I should take drastic measures to reduce my accent. And I never knew there was an actual accent reduction industry waiting to serve me.
In my family we speak English with many different accents. My husband grew up in India but he doesn’t have what’s perceived here as a typically Indian accent. To me he sounds like he could have been born in America though I guess native speakers grasp that he’s not from here originally. The funny thing is, when he speaks English with people in India his speech tends to mirror them. There come Indian intonations I usually don’t hear in his mouth. Speaking of stereotypes, all of Appa‘s relatives who speak English have an accent but it varies so much from one person to another that it really never feels like I am talking with a token Indian character in a lazy movie.
I on the other hand sound very… French — though once in a while somebody surprises me by asking if I am German. Minette, who is well aware of my accent, makes sometimes fun of it, always gently. She’s also delighted with over the top French accents in songs and fiction. Think Maurice Chevalier singing The Aristocats. Myself, I used to occasionally tease her about her notably American “r’s” when she spoke French but they seem to have vanished over this summer break, as a result of the long stretches of time spent with her French relatives.
The French part of our family speaks English with an undeniably French accent, except for the Millenials and Grand-Père who, probably because he studied and taught Russian, harbors a blended accent not always easy to place when he speaks other foreign languages.
That’s only my family but it occurs to me that our miniature Babel resonates with the big wide world. English, as is well known, is spoken by many more people as a second language than as a first on this planet — twice as many according to some fresh data published by ethnologue.com. That comes obviously with an incredibly broad spectrum of accents.
Come to think of it, this is also true of U.S. society itself, though not in the same proportions. Good for you, America, because that tells you in a very noticeable way something that should actually make you feel great. You are a country that attracts people from all around the world. People are willing to change their trajectory, to learn a new language, to adjust their way of life enough to become part of you. That’s not something so many countries can boast. Don’t take it for granted…