Thoughts on “Identity” and Accent Modification

sitting on the fence questionThe other day there was a client in one of my group classes who made the most interesting observation. This person was, as are most of my clients, a very advanced speaker of ESL. She had been in English-speaking countries for the last ten years and was picking up the sounds of vowels and consonants very quickly. But finding the “music” of English was particularly challenging: the idea of linking consonants and vowels from syllable to syllable to find a flowing rhythm, and changing pitch to find melodies that express meaning more readily.  There was also some resistance to what I call “short-form” English, the spoken expressions that we native English speakers use all the time but which have almost nothing to do with written English (e.g., wanna, gonna, gotta, hafta).

There were two issues that came up, both equally important.

The first was political. In my client’s native country, there are two large populations with different languages. When speaking the language of the majority population with the accent of the majority population, her own community judged her harshly. They wanted and expected a more guttural sound in keeping with the native language of her community.

In learning to speak the English language, she had absorbed the “shame” of her community’s judgment – the implication that speaking a language other than your own with the accent of the native speaker was, perhaps the gentle word is, a “sellout.”

The second,  which I’ve sometimes heard from other clients, was that she felt that by imitating our “short-form” spoken English, using expressions like “wanna,” “gotta,” “gonna,” etc., she was just being “fake.”

These are interesting and sensitive challenges. When she recognized that there was “shame” involved in making changes to her accent, she felt a great sense of relief and freedom. And yet the general sense that absorbing the “music” of English to sound more like a native speaker could cause her to lose her identify was a different story.  This part was not about the intensity of shame, but more about the fear of losing a part of yourself, your roots.

So the question is “Do we really lose our identity when we choose, consciously or unconsciously, to incorporate the sounds of the vernacular of our adopted country?” Must identity be tied to accent or is identity something internal – something felt – a deep love of one’s native country,  native culture.

I would really love to hear from speakers of English as a Second Language on this.

Meanwhile, check out the Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel at One-Minute Words for the web series One-Minute Words and other videos on pronunciation.

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