How I Speak is Who I Am
EVERY now and then, I have a conversation that goes something like this:
New Acquaintance: So, where are you from?
New Acquaintance: And How long have you lived in Hong Kong?
Me: Around 20 years.
New Acquaintance: Wow! And you haven't lost your Australian accent.
I'm never quite sure how to respond.
“Of course I haven’t mislaid my accent. That would be pure carelessness!”
The conversation raises many questions. Why would I lose my accent? What would I trade it for – a British, American, South African, or, heaven forbid, a New Zealand accent?
Denise Murray, a fellow Australian linguist has some telling stories about her own accent. Years ago, when living in England, she applied for English language teaching positions. She says, “For many positions, I never even got an interview. Twice I did get an inter- view, but was told, ‘We don’t accept teachers with an Australian accent. We want to teach British English.’” Denise thought, ‘I’m going to sound just like the Queen, and see if they refuse me then.’ Ironically, on return to Australia, she was taken for British. Later, as Professor of Linguistics, she was again taken for a Brit. She says, “Students fill out evaluation forms. One student wrote at the bottom. ‘I love your enthusiasm for the subject AND YOUR ACCENT.’ Over the next two decades, I received numerous, similar paraphrases such as “I love to hear you talk”. I always wonder, ‘Do they ever listen to the content of what I say?’” *
Our accent, like our name partly defines us. In her article, Denise Murray poses the question, why did she change her pronunciation of English so completely during her time in Britain that she was taken as British, fooling even the native speakers. After almost thirty years in the United States, she has a ‘blended’ dialect that is neither Australian nor American. She concludes that she is a chameleon. In other words, “like the tiger, I can’t and don’t change my stripes. I prefer to be different.”
The same is true for second language speakers. How they speak is who they are. As a teacher, this is some- thing that I have to keep in mind and respect. I have a friend who was brought up bilingually in English and French. Although she can speak English with a flawless English accent, there are occasions when she chooses to speak with a French accent. In doing so, she is expressing her French side, in effect, to say, “There is a part of me that is not English and that doesn’t want to be English.”
On the other hand, there are some learners who want to speak with a flawless accent. When, occasionally, a learner says to me, “I want to speak with a perfect native speaking accent,” I have to point out to them that this is an unrealistic goal. In the first place, there are many different native speaking accents. “What type of accent would you like?” I reply, “Would you like to sound like a Scottish football manager? A South African farmer? A New York policeman?” In addition to accents that display regional and continental differences, the fact is that no two people have identical accents.
A more realistic goal for language learners is intelligibility, rather than trying to speak like some kind of idealized native speaker. Intelligibility is defined as spoken utterances which can be comprehended by, and is not distracting, to the listener. My goal as a teacher is not to “fix a broken accent,” but rather to promote intelligibility between speakers in a particular context. To do so I help learners to produce comprehensible messages in connected streams of speech. tj
*Murray, D. 2010. Changing stripes – chameleon or tiger? In D. Nunan and J. Choi (eds.) Language and Culture: Reflective Narratives and the Emergence of Identity. New York: Routledge.