According to current estimates, there are approximately 6,000 languages in existence throughout the world. Some of them enjoy a unique status, those we define as “dominant languages” because they are used as an instrument of daily communication by a substantial number of people. Among these languages some are used on many continents. As a language spreads over a large geographic area local variations are created, often similar to one another, but with different vocabularies and, of course, different accents.
The word “accent” can have different meanings depending on how it’s used. In this article, however, I’ll be referring to the following definition:
1. (Linguistics / Phonetics & Phonology) the characteristic mode of pronunciation of a person or group, esp. one that betrays social or geographical origin.
The status enjoyed by a particular language is, of course, a result of its history: colonization, migration and immigration as well as (unfortunately) invasions, occupations and wars. In this context the languages take on a new role. Not only do they serve as a means of communication but they also take on political and cultural significance. The language is a distinctive trait of a nation and a people.
This introduction serves, in part, to explain how one’s choice of an accent can sometimes bring about a confrontation with a complex reality and a certain antipathy and misunderstanding, something which could otherwise be difficult to understand.
I still recall vividly a conversation that I had in a bar in Madrid with a young Colombian. We were talking about accents and he said “The accent of Spain is ugly. Every time we hear Spanish tourists talk we laugh and make fun of them. “That statement kind of took me aback. I’d thought, naively, that having a common language would have created a bond between groups of people separated by an ocean but having common cultural traits that come from having the same language. On the one hand, it’s undeniably true that there is a “Latin Spirit/Culture”, but on the other hand, one must consider the fact that the Spanish language was imposed upon them by the Spaniards centuries ago through wars and barbarism of every kind that brought about the extinction of entire peoples, also caused by illnesses that were unknown in the new continent and to which the immune systems of the indigenous people were not prepared. These massacres generated a resentment that was passed down from generation to generation and has never gone dormant, even after so many centuries have passed.
In the course of recent years I’ve noticed that this young Colombian is in good company. Trying not to generalize, I’ve met many South Americans who don’t like the Spanish accent at all. Some of them find it much harsher than the variations spoken in South America and in some cases they finish by talking about the conquistadors. This was confirmed in You Tube when in some of my videos numerous comments appear for and against the Spanish accent and there were mutual misunderstandings (and sometimes insults). There is even a video by an American girl who, with great pride, stands up for her decision to opt for a Spanish accent despite the various criticisms and mocking on the part of South American residents of the United States or American citizens of South American origin.
English, French and Portuguese are other examples in which a similar thing happens, though in a different way. In the case of English, I’m aware that in England the American accent is not well-accepted by a part of the population and I’ve heard with my own ears the statement that the American accent “sounds stupid”. Obviously this is not a reflection of the entire English population, and I’m sure that some Americans find the English accent unpleasant. But English is a global language; it is not limited to England and America.
Another case that stands out is that of Portuguese. Many Brazilians asked me why in the world I would choose the accent of Portugal over that of Brazil which is more widely spoken and is obviously more popular among foreigners as well as native speakers. Not only is it more pleasant to listen to, they would say, but it’s the language spoken in a country with strong economic expansion. Effectively, I personally noticed a very high appreciation of the Brazilian variant as compared to the “Continental” one.
Being Italian, I’m surprised by all of this because our language is “confined” to Italy and there are only a few people in the former Italian colonies (such as Ethiopia and Eritrea) who still speak it, so for us it would be strange to hear a drastically different Italian spoken in another part of the world (in which dialects of the immigrants have been spoken since the start of the 20th century.
However, I understand, in part, these misunderstandings because we have them too, though on a regional level. Italian has more dialects than almost any language in the world, with an extraordinary variety of accents. In some places in Italy one need only go 10 – 15 km. to hear a different accent. This fragmentation of the accent comes from a fragmentation on a political level. Until 150 years ago Italy was still divided into many city-states, very different from one another with completely different histories and developments. There is often a mutual mistrust, antipathy not only between regions but between cities and communities within the regions, something we call “campanilismo”.
Some accents turn out to be pleasant and others, not.
How to choose an accent: my experience with five languages
One of the questions that I’m often asked on You Tube deals with which accent to adopt.
I’ll start by telling you about my experience with English, French, Spanish and German.
The first thing that jumps out at you when you watch my videos is that I speak American English, the “over the pond” variation while I speak the European versions of the other four languages.
Sometimes, at a certain age, one decides to learn a language and considers which variation to learn. In the case of English, I didn’t have to choose; it was American English that chose me, as I explain in this video. (LINK) I had a private tutor who was from Chicago, 95% of the English language films that I saw were American and my friends in Rome were all American.
When I learned French I started at school and the only non-satellite station we received was a French channel. Moreover, there was a relative dearth of materials in other versions of French (like “Quebequois”, the French spoken in Belgium, Swiss French and the variations spoken in several nations in Africa). The same holds true for Spanish: the first Spanish class that I took was taught exclusively in the Spanish of Spain, and for many of the other courses as well. So it was an obligatory choice. German was no exception either as only the “hochdeutch” is taught, at least in Italy. If I’d gone to live in Austria and had learned the language there, I probably would have ended up learning Austrian German, but I decided to learn German at home and the materials that I used only presented the German spoken in Germany.
For Portuguese the choice was a little harder. There were basically two versions and I finally decided on the European Portuguese because I liked the sound of it even though, as I said earlier, many people like Brazilian Portuguese.
Adopting one accent instead of another is, first and foremost, a personal choice dictated by one’s tastes and the materials at his/her disposal.
If you are undecided you can decide according to the following guidelines
If you are studying on your own, having plenty of good-quality materials is absolutely essential for setting up an effective language studio. If one version of the desired language has far fewer materials than another, I suggest that you choose the one for which there are more resources. I’m referring to materials with a hard copy and accompanying audio. One of my students admitted to me that he opted for the Spanish of Spain, even though he liked it less, because he couldn’t find sufficient resources to learn one of the South American varieties.
People are a fundamental resource for learning to speak a language well. Language is a means of communication and the interaction with other people allows the addition of the emotional, social and behavioral aspects while acquiring a foreign language. If you have the opportunity to practice a language right away, for example if you have a friend or companion at your side, adopting the accent of the country of origin of that person could be an essential element in the improvement and the development of not only that person but of all those around him/her. If, for example, you have a Chilean girlfriend and you have the opportunity to travel to Chile, you’ll be more motivated to learn that variation of Spanish.
That holds true for associations in general. If there are a lot of people in your town who come from a certain country and you often have the opportunity to meet with them and see them often, you’ll be more motivated to learn that language. To give you a specific example, it’s much easier to practice American English in Rome than the other forms of English, thanks to the massive presence of Americans in the Italian capital.
Even without necessarily having any personal relationships with people from other countries there is still the possibility of traveling. If you often have to travel to a certain location, whether for business or pleasure, it could be an additional motive for learning a specific language.
Even your employment could play a big part in the selection of a language. If, for example you often conduct business with Brazilians or travel to Brazil as part of your job, learning Brazilian Portuguese rather than that spoken in Europe could greatly ease negotiations or simply business relations.
“De gustibus disputandum non est” , the ancient Romans used to say. Personal tastes are not up for discussion. As far as language learning, the best students are those who understand right away what it is they enjoy doing and this is naturally true when it comes to accents as well. Choosing a language you like listening to encourages you to listen more and to spend time with the language.
The choice of an accent is a personal one and is directed by personal relationships, work, preferences, availability of materials, travel opportunities and the people one knows. Often misunderstandings come about because of historical events, aesthetics and phonetics at a continental, national and regional level.
Still, languages remain a means of communication. If a person is pleasant and speaks with propriety, the accent with which he speaks plays a very minor role and his interlocutor will concentrate more on content than on form.
It’s really not important which accent you use; what’s important is speaking well and establishing an emotional connection, empathizing with the other person. A pleasant interlocutor is pleasant, regardless of the accent with which s/he speaks.
Here is a video (in English, Spanish and Portuguese) in which my “polyglot buddies” and I talk about our own personal choices as far as accents are concerned. I hope you all enjoy it!
LUCA, RICHARD AND SUSANNA TALK ABOUT CHOOSING AN ACCENT IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE
Transcript of the video
Richard: You speak Brazilian Portuguese
Susanna: It’s a mix. My accent is a mixture of the Portuguese accent from Brazil and that of Portugal.
Richard: How is that possible? How is it possible to speak a mixture of Brazilian and continental Portuguese?
Susanna: It’s because I live in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. No, I’m just kidding. Where I live in San José, California, there’s a large population of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores islands. They have their own radio station. When I was driving to work, I would listen to their radio station. So I started with Portuguese from Portugal. At home, I had a Portuguese language book, Com liçença, Brazilian Portuguese for Spanish speakers. Then I started with Brazilian music. Now I have Brazilian friends and I go to a weekly Brazilian hiking group on Saturdays. We walk and we speak in Portuguese. But when I don’t want to speak in Portuguese, I speak in English and they speak to me in Portuguese. So I hear a lot of Brazilian Portuguese. But I think my vowels are more Portuguese, they are more closed.
But I want to work in Brazil because in Brazil, there’s a big market for English and Spanish language learning. They are getting ready for the Olympic Games and the World Cup. So I think I need to improve my Brazilian pronunciation to work in Brazil.
Richard: And sing as well?
Susanna: Oh yes and sing “Nossa. nossa. ai você me mata...”
Richard: My daughter is always singing this song. It’s really popular in Macedonia now. My daughter wants to sing this song. I thought it was really odd that she could pronounce all of those words. I didn’t know she could sing all of the words. It’s weird to me.
Susanna: Your daughter can sing the whole song? Wow! She is a very intelligent 5 year old girl.
Luca: She’s Richard’s daughter.
Susanna: Yes, of course, she’s Richard’s daughter. Luca, how did you learn Portuguese?
Luca: I wanted to learn continental Portuguese. There’s always this issue with accents. People wonder why an Italian would speak American English. Or French. Or Spanish, I didn’t know that there were so many misunderstandings between people from Spain and Mexico or from other parts of Latin America, they don’t like the Spanish accent. People ask me why I speak with a Spanish accent. But in Italy it’s normal to learn European Spanish or European Portuguese. When I meet people from Brazil, the first question they ask me is, “Why do you speak with such an annoying accent?”
Normally, Brazilians, well you know, it’s like in American English, the vowels are more open. The French, the Spanish, foreigners in general, think that Brazilian Portuguese sounds nicer than European Portuguese. But there are also political and historical issues. It’s Brazil, it’s important to speak Brazilian Portuguese. But if you speak continental Portuguese, people understand what you are saying, but they don’t like how it sounds. So if you want to work in Brazil, it’s better to speak with a Brazilian accent. Many people say that Portuguese is Portuguese. But the accent is part of the country’s identity. If you speak with a Brazilian accent, it’s different, people will treat you differently.
I’m Italian and I don’t know if I will go to work in Brazil. Maybe I will have to speak slower so people can understand everything I am saying. Normally, the issue is that Brazilians don’t like my accent so they prefer to speak in English. This isn’t the case with everyone. But there are some people who like the Portuguese accent and Portugal. But many Brazilians and other foreigners (non-Portuguese people) don’t like the Portuguese accent. They say it’s ugly.
I think you have to learn a language to say if it’s nice or not. For example, with Dutch or Portuguese, people say they don’t like those languages. But after learning them, it’s a different story. It’s the same with Catalan. When I was in Barcelona, in Catalunya, I didn’t like the sound of Catalan at the beginning but now I like it a lot. The first thing to do is to speak the language. With Brazilians ... with Spanish, I get the question about my accent and why I speak European Spanish. At first, I didn’t understand why people asked me this. I am speaking Spanish. There are many similarities between the different versions of Spanish, the one in Latin America and the one in Spain. But behind the accent, there are other things that foreigners don’t understand at first but later on they learn when they speak with people.
Susanna: I think we should talk about accents. Sometimes people ask me, “Do you think I should start with Mexican, Peruvian or European Spanish?”
I think you should listen to all of the accents at the beginning. I started with European Portuguese and I don’t have any problems understand Portuguese people when they speak. And I understand almost everything that Brazilians say. But some people tell me, “I started with Brazilian Portuguese and I can’t understand people from Portugal. And I say, “How can that be? I have no problems understanding them.” The same goes for Spanish because my first Spanish teacher was from Spain and I can understand European Spanish and Latin American Spanish because I hear it, I’ve traveled in Latin America.
My parents, in the USSR, only learned British English. So when they came to the US, it was a big shock to hear American English. What do you two do when you are learning a language with various accents? Do you listen to all of the versions of the language?
Luca: At the very beginning I always use a language series like ASSIMIL. This language series generally offers the European version of languages like French or Spanish. I believe that the way one learns a language plays an important role. Learning with a book and listening to the standard European version of the language is different from, say, going to Quebec and being exposed to Quebequois. As for Portuguese, I actually had the choice between ASSIMIL bresilien and ASSIMIL Portuguese from Portugual, and I opted for the Portuguese version so it was a deliberate choice I made. I think it is important to go for one version of the language since the very beginning especially if you want to sound like a native and not mix up accents. You can always absorb other accents later
I think it is important to do that if you want to acquire a well-defined linguistic identity. As said, I the case of French and Spanish it was easy for me. In Italy the only choice you get is Spanish from Spain and French from France, there are no such courses as “argentinian Spanish” or other versions from South America. As for German, ..Germany had a couple of colonies but it is not a language spoken everywhere. One normally learns “hochdeutsch” – German from Germany. Unless you go to Austria or Switzerland and get exposed to other regional variations of the language, one normally learns German from Germany both in schools and in language series like ASSIMIL. English is a special case because American English is wide spread thanks to movies for example. My adive is to choose one accent. You always have time to explore other accents if you want to. Now, this is only my humble opinion and I guess that the King of languages will offer a different perspective
In my case, I first started learning Spanish in Madrid, with a Spanish teacher. I later moved to France and I was exposed to a southern accent, andalusian Spanish, by living with people from Malaga. I then moved to other countries and lived with South Americans, namely from Peru, Ecuador Venezuela, and I picked up a “middle atlantic” accent. Nevertheless, I always go back to castlian Spanish, especially andalusian. I can speak standard Spanish but I got used to andalusian and when I speak the standard version I have to focus on how to articulate every word, and it is more difficult if you have to speak to people for a long period of time. As for German, I lived in a region near Holland, where “low-german” is spoken, so I used to say “dat, wat” instead of “dass, was”. I also had friends from Switzerland, so I like playing with numbers and use th “swiss version” of those. I think that being able to speak with different accents is enriching and gives you the possibility of understanding the people of those countries better, because it makes you aware of differences within the same world. I think that absorbing new accents is a valuable thing to do.