SO WHY DO I WANT TO SPEAK ABOUT HIS ACCENT?
His accent? Really Simon? Right, most publications today will be talking about his surprising rise to status and power in the American government in the 50s and 60s. Wikipedia sums him up as “…an American diplomat, political theorist, geopolitical consultant, and politician who served as United States Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under the presidential administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.”
But did you know he was a German born Jewish refugee who escaped Germany in 1938 and ended up in the United States before doing all the above?
From a social-linguistic point of view, the fact that he still has a German accent after 85 years might come as a surprise to some. How is that possible? He was only 15 when he came to the United States.
In the rest of this article, I’m going to discuss foreign non-native speaker accents. As someone who’s lived and worked in the foreign language sector in Spain for the last 34 years, I’ve heard every possible opinion about it.
In the last year when I’ve spoken Spanish, some people have said, “But how is it possible that you sound like you’re from Valladolid if you’re from England?” (praise or confusion?). Someone from Toledo thought I had a Catalan accent (flattery?!) and someone else exclaimed, “I can’t believe you still have a noticeable English accent after so long.” (criticism or confusion?). Confused?
Some people hear deviations from the norm more than others and it depends on ambient noise and the origin of the speaker. But the way people perceive foreign accents is also cultural. In some countries they are seen as attractive and normal, and in others they may be associated with one’s ability or lack of it at learning a language, and perhaps a doubt about a foreign person’s desire to adapt and become part of a culture.
Let’s go back to Henry Kissinger. He speaks perfect English but still has an accent. And what about Arnold Schwarzenegger? He’s an Austrian who moved to the USA in 1968 and still has a noticeable Austrian accent. I found a video of him in an interview on the 1985 Letterman US TV show. He spoke perfect English. Letterman asked him “But you don’t want to lose it (your accent) do you?” He replied, “It’s not important to lose it… some people think it’s attractive, other people think it’s sexy, which I don’t blame them for saying!”
These answers are game changers for any foreign language learner.
He was totally comfortable with his accent and had no self-consciousness about it. It didn’t harm his political or acting career either. Kissinger refers to his accent as his “trade mark.” I love that too.
In my talk, Finding your English Voice, which is about improving your accent in English, I highlight the main goal as a foreign language speaker which is:
Intelligibility. When you speak, the way you pronounce words needs to be close enough to a recognised accent model, be that English, American, Australian, etc, That means you can still have your Spanish accent in English or your English accent in Spanish, but listeners should understand you. Arnold Schwarzenegger says “you always have to work on it to be totally understandable.”
I follow two non-native English YouTubers who have managed to master an American accent. But personally, I’ve only met one person who learned English formally and sounded like a native speaker to me. She’d lived in England for 23 years, but a very long time in a country isn’t the only factor.
A perfect accent in a foreign language may even seem “fake”. Why do you speak with a New York accent if you’ve never been there? some may ask.
In the end, an accent is like the icing on the cake for a language learner, after you’ve mastered everything else. Reaching a native accent is an ability to imitate sounds married with a very strong desire and determination to want to do so. You don’t lose it accidentally. Many learners could acquire one, but only through hard work and lots and lots of practice.
So, there’s no need to feel embarrassed about your accent when you speak a foreign language, it’s your trade make, so be proud of it! Just make sure people can understand you.
If you want to improve your accent in English, feel free to discuss your goals with me.