Living in Paris, I’m well and truly immersed in a setting that is – despite how proud the French are of their language – linguistically diverse. Since moving here a month ago, I’ve been hearing French, English, Arabic, Spanish… as well as this past month’s reigning language: Football Chants. Given my background, ‘franglais’ is the Sun my Earth revolves around, and it’s a complicated universe full of struggles and insecurities – one of which I’m really not a fan of: accent shame.
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of people bashing their own accents. There are native Anglophones rolling their eyes at their struggle to perform a perfect French ‘r,’ French people shaking their heads at their ‘très horrible’ accents when they speak English… in the past week alone I’ve heard ‘Sorry for my accent’ uttered countless times in both languages.
Then something bad happened.
I was in the Apple Store in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, getting my iPhone screen replaced (I had thrown my pot of lip balm across my room ordering it to ‘Land on Bed,’ which it, unfortunately, interpreted as ‘Land on Middle of Phone Screen’), and as I sat down at the genius bar with my designated genius, I prefaced the conversation by apologising in advance for my accent. Immediately, I began internally screaming, kind of like this.
I was mad at myself for having caught the disease of self-shaming, mad that I’d presented an image of someone who underestimates their abilities. The employee inquired as to where I was from and then asked if I would prefer to speak English. ‘Non!’ I squealed, and he laughed nervously into his iPad.
This isn’t the first time the accent woes have entered my life, and I know it’s something many of us experience. But I’ve come to firmly believe that indulging that haughty little voice that tells you you’re embarrassing yourself by not speaking perfect English/Dutch/Indonesian etc. is nothing but a huge waste of time. Here’s why:
1) Your Accent Makes You Who You Are
I’m not trying to be all Oprah, mostly because I can’t afford to give you all cars, but this sub-heading does not lie! Your natural accent and how it affects whatever foreign languages you speak is part of who you are, and nobody should be ashamed of any part of themselves. I would feel genuinely sad if I woke up one day to find my French friends speaking perfectly enunciated English (side note: there are countless ‘English’ accents anyway, so you might as well make your own!) They wouldn’t be the same people I knew. We wouldn’t be able to giggle over the fine line between ‘hungry’ and ‘angry’ and I wouldn’t be able to compliment them on being adorable. And I don’t mean that in a patronising way – I genuinely think French-accented English is adorable.
Like, I will fall in love with you.
2) It Represents Something to Be Proud Of
A big part of my French-language education (I started learning in high school) was training the accent and working hard on pronunciation. It formed part of our exams, and I took pride in being relatively strong at adopting an authentic rhythm. Somewhere along the way, however, I got a little too caught up in this, to the point where I was trying to erase my natural accent completely, and then beating myself up when I heard it come through. There was a period where I cursed the language gods for not having delivered me to bilingual parents who would raise me in their image/accent, an era in which I wished I was French and couldn’t bear the thought of anyone in France ever suspecting I was anything but.
The more I started travelling, exposing myself to different languages, cultures, and yes – accents, the more I understood my priorities were misplaced. I met so many people who spoke many different languages in many different accents, and they were all fabulous. I took another look at myself and thought, Oh! You learnt a foreign language – that’s so cool! You found something you loved and worked hard to pursue it, and now look where you are!
Our accents are markers of what we’ve achieved. Of how we’ve had the work ethic and courage to get out of our comfort zone, make mistakes, and ultimately develop the ability to point at a country on a world map and know we can communicate with people there, despite having been born thousands of miles away. Pretty bloody awesome.
3) It’s a Conversation Starter
One time, I left a dance class in Paris and saw someone from the group at the metro station afterwards. He recognised me and asked if I enjoyed the class. ‘Oui!’ I said, and he immediately asked where my accent was from. Really?! I thought. I can’t even get ‘oui’ right?! I used to hate when things like this happened – I felt like I’d been dramatically exposed like a villain in Scooby Doo. These days, however, I welcome the question. It’s a good conversation starter, and as long it’s posed respectfully and in an appropriate context, it probably just means that someone is intrigued. Your accent is interesting! You’re mysterious!
I get that it can be frustrating when someone takes your accent as an invitation to start talking to you in your mother tongue or driving the conversation to be all about your foreign-ness. The trick here is to be persistent. There have been a few occasions where waiters/bartenders/strangers in parks have switched to English with me mid-conversation or upon my confession of my pays d’origine, but each time I have simply refused to answer in English. I even did this back in the day, when people brought out English because I was really struggling with my French and they genuinely wanted to help out.
Just keep at it, no matter how ridiculous you sound. Trust me, they will eventually give up and go back to French (or whichever language applies to your experience of this situation.) And if nothing else, these conversations exchanged half in one broken language and half in another will be entertaining to bystanders.
4) Nobody Really Cares
If someone’s talking to me in English in an accent that reveals them to be a non-native speaker, I do not care. I really don’t. It doesn’t keep me awake at night, and it certainly doesn’t make me think to myself, ‘Oh, they pronounce that like zat, how very embarrassing!’ I think it’s important to keep this in mind when it’s you on the other end. Is this person you’re speaking with going to think less of you if your pronunciation is sometimes sloppy? (And does it matter if they do?) I mean, did that guy at the Apple Store the other day actually care if I had an accent? Of course not. He’s used to speaking with Siri, of all non-people – someone who said to ‘avoid eating fat’ when I asked her to tell me the meaning of life.
Was there any need for me to apologise in advance for existing as a foreigner? No, non and nyet!
And if people do care (A*holes are a persistent breed of human), that’s their problem. If someone makes fun of you for your accent, swear at them in your head (or aloud; you do you) and move on. Why would you want to waste your time speaking to that kind of person? What do you think their answer would be if you turned around and asked them how many languages they spoke? People like that do not deserve you and your adorable accent. *Adopts voice of Joanna Franco* Next!
I’m not saying you should forget about committing to pronunciation and accent work when learning a foreign language. I still strive to improve every day, and of course, you need people to be able to understand what you’re saying. But what I hope this post has made clear is that a.) most of us are probably never going to possess a fully ‘authentic’ accent in our second, third, or seventh languages and b.) it is such a waste of our time, energy and talents to dwell on this fact.
Ain’t nobody got time for imposter syndrome.
When you hear that voice of embarrassment creeping in, don’t listen to it. Turn to yourself and quote the greatest comedy of the last decade (Bridesmaids, duh): ‘No. You are more beautiful than Cinderella. You smell like pine needles and have a face like sunshine.’ This might not relate super closely to languages, but you get me. Pep-talks, not put-downs.
Be proud of your accent and what it represents. Be foreign! Be free!
You get a car! You get a car! You get a car!