The French, who are very proud of and particular about the pronunciation and proper use of their language, have a saying about people who speak French poorly and/or with a bad accent: “parler français comme une vache espagnole” (to speak French like a Spanish cow).
When I hear a non-native person speaking with a strong accent that is difficult to understand, I am aware that many native speakers will not make the effort to understand what the person is saying and will instead focus on the person’s accent. While some language learners make a concerted effort to improve their accents, others think that “as long as people can understand me, then I’m fine”. People may understand those with an accent, but they may limit their communication with someone they strain to understand because it takes too much effort. The point is for the listener to listen to what the speaker is saying and not to how they are saying it. Foreign accents and foreign prosody (the musicality of the languages) can sometimes put the emphasis in sentences in the wrong places or portray the wrong emotion associated with what the person is saying. The sing-songy tone to a Mexican Spanish accent may make an English sentence seem funny or silly when it needs to be serious. The loud and sometimes aggressive tone of an Arabic or Hebrew accent can make the speaker seem angry in English even when he or she isn’t upset.
Last week, the radio program Fresh Air on National Public Radio in the US replayed an interview with Sam Chwat, a dialect specialist who worked business people, politicians and the actors such as Julia Roberts and Robert DeNiro who wanted to lose a regional accent. This extract from the transcript elucidates my point:
In 1994 on Fresh Air, he told Terry Gross that most clients came to him because they felt that their dialect distracted people from what they were saying.
“People are listening to how they say their words instead of what they’re saying,” he said. “This could be deadly if you’re doing a commercial. It could be deadly if you’re giving a business presentation.”
“Other reasons people come is because they find that they’re stigmatized as being members of a discriminated subgroup. [They say,] ‘I sound too black,’ ‘I sound too ‘New York.’ … Or they feel that parts of their speech make them unintelligible or difficult to understand because most people are expecting standard American speech, which is an easier pattern for most people to understand.”
Accent does matter. I make mistakes in the languages I speak but what makes people confuse me with a native speaker is my accent. I sound like them. People like to talk to others who sound like them. It’s a comfort zone.
Accents also matter in movies. Actors have to be believable.
Yesterday, I was watching the movie, Rendition, that takes place in a fictional Arabic-speaking North African country. Jake Gyllenhall plays a rookie CIA agent whose local coworker/girlfriend is played by Israeli actress Hadar Ratzon. Instead of speaking with an Arabic accent, she spoke with a Hebrew accent! I could tell after her first two words that she was Israeli and her character was totally incredible to me because she sounded wrong. Hebrew and Arabic are both Semetic languages but they sound extremely different. That’s like having an Italian actor play a Spanish speaking person. It’s just wrong!
Would you watch a Rambo movie where the main actor is overweight? No, you expect a tough muscular man to play an action hero. The same thing goes for an actor portraying someone from another country.
In the movie, Salt, Angelina Jolie and Liev Schreiber play supposed Russian sleeper agents at the CIA who spent part of their childhood in Russia and then moved to the US. Their spoken Russian in the film was horrible. As a result, their characters were totally unbelievable. The only reason I watched the entire movie was because I was on an international flight (from the former USSR) and had nothing else to do. Otherwise, I would have walked out of the movie theater. A spy with a bad accent isn’t worth their salt.
(I looked for clips online from both of these movies and I couldn’t find any to show my point.)
Accent does matter. Accent reduction coaches make lots of money catering to those who want to change their speech patterns. For those learning languages, get your heads out of the books and listen. Pay attention to the differences in how men and women speak in your target language. Listen to HOW people speak so that when you open your mouth and talk in your new language, native speakers will listen to what you’re saying and not get stuck on HOW you are speaking because it’s so distracting to them.
Don’t sound like a Spanish cow. Sound like the native (human) speakers of the language!