Our Many Accents

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…

6 Replies to “Our Many Accents

  1. Another excellent observation, Marianne. Yet another aspect of the accent debate is the broad spectrum of accents within the United States. I, an ashamed one-language Senior, have often understood those from other countries with thick accents better than someone from Brooklyn or a native of the Deep South!

    1. Yes, I was thinking as I wrote this post of the great variety of American accents. It’s interesting, and unexpected to me, that some of these might be challenging even for native speakers. They certainly can be for me.

  2. I once asked a new dental hygienist where she was from. When she said she grew up in the southern US, I said, “You don’t have a southern accent.” She said she’d had coaching to get rid of her southern accent. When I asked her why, she said northerners tended to think she wasn’t very smart when she talked that way. I asked what southerners tend to think of someone with a northern accent. She hesitated to say until I prodded her gently. “Always in a hurry and somewhat arrogant,” she said, and we both laughed. Of course within ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ there is a host of variations.

  3. I am known as multilingual. I am French and that is my first language, then I started to learn German at age 11 and at the same time English. My tutor was German. When I came the U.S, I spoke some American English with a unidentifiable accent. People thought I was British, Italian, German and even Russian. When I said I was French, they would say that could not be because I did not have the French accent. Almost immediately upon arriving in the U.S, I started to learn Spanish and even took it as an elective in high school. Later I tried to learn Japanese and the Japanese people would laugh at me. When I asked why, they said I did not speak like an American. I then learned that in all languages I had a definite French accent even after I lost my accent in American English. That was many decades ago and today I speak without an accent when I speak American English. If I am around British speakers, I start to pick up their accent. I am still fluent in French and without any accent. When I take a trip to France and people ask me from where I am, I tell them I am from Lyon and they say but you don’t have a regional accent? I have to explain that I left Lyon and France a long time ago.

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