Some people firmly believe that our accent is part of our identity, which I can understand. People from certain regions use their accent to show status, belonging or even to demonstrate they don’t belong! Personally I have mixed opinions about my region – on the one hand I am proud to be from Essex, as it’s a region known for strong, independent women, which is one of the reasons there were so many witch trials in the 16th century around the area. On the other hand, another, more recent, stereotype of ‘Essex girls’ is wearing too much make-up and mini-skirts, and spending most of their time going out and getting drunk, which I don’t relate to. I have some Italian friends who have lived in the UK for years, but still have a strong Italian accent. It could be that some people are unable, or unwilling, to hear the differences and so do not adapt their language to their situation. Some people I’ve spoken with have even told me that they don’t want to change the way they speak because there will be different expectations, from a cultural perspective. Perhaps my Mediterranean students just want an excuse to be late to their lessons! But I can definitely understand not wanting to feel like you’re faking something.
I know from personal experience that our accents can change to fit in with those around us. Apparently, when I was at my small village primary school I had a strong Essex accent, however, when I went to secondary school and was socialising with people from a wider area I lost my regional accent and used a more neutral accent to speak. Nowadays, I don’t change my accent (although I’ve kept my more neutral accent) – I’ve lived in different countries in Europe and several locations around the UK and haven’t picked up any of the local accents, but I feel comfortable with the way I speak and don’t feel the need to change that in order to fit in. However, I have some friends who switch the way they speak depending on who they’re talking with, much like changing languages for people from different countries, but changing accents for people from different regions. I find this fascinating and believe this can show empathy and can help others feel more at ease.
Regarding foreign languages I found it really frustrating when I first went to Italy and wanted to practise my Italian, because as soon as I opened my mouth, they heard I wasn’t Italian and they switched to English. Perhaps they were just as eager to practise their English?! But I worked hard to become more fluent, in order to prevent others from automatically switch to English when speaking with me.
As I know from learning other languages, our accent can change over time as we become more fluent or depending on who we are learning the language from. I spent 6 months living in small town in Austria and picked up several phrases while I was there, which although considered ‘hoch-deutsch’, I definitely pronounced with an Upper Austrian accent for a while. I’ve heard some students from Italy speak English with a strong Scottish accent, because they learnt their English from a Scot – it was a novelty to start with, but I soon got used to it. I don’t think the accent we learn and use matters as long as we can make ourselves understood, that we can understand others and that we feel comfortable with how we speak.
Personally I think changing our accent is about wanting to fit in, either consciously or subconsciously, with the people we’re spending time with. I am aware that the Queen’s English has been the goal for many learners, however, I hope this is gradually changing. Less than 3% of the British population actually speak with this accent and there are thought to be 40 different accents around the UK alone, that’s not to mention American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and other world Englishes.
In fact, there are now more non-native speakers of English than native speakers. Finding an accent you like the sound of and working towards that is a much better goal than wanting to sound more ‘native-like’. What do you think?