“Aww, your accent is so cute!” she gushed. She meant it as a compliment. I felt it as a critique. As a grown woman speaking a second language, I don’t want to be cute. I want to be heard, understood, and accepted. My guess is, you do too. It can be tempting to ooh and ahh when you hear people speaking in a way that differs slightly from your own. Yet, that is not the response the speaker is looking for. So, what do you do in those moments? How can we embrace accents instead of making the speaker feel alienated and rejected? Give this month’s podcast a listen to find out:
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Who is Frances Díaz Evans?
Before we jump into all the awesome content in today’s podcast episode, let me introduce you to our guest:
Frances is a Spanish educator, the mother of a bilingual, bicultural child and the author of a new book, “Coco la Cotorra Puertoriqueña“. Her book is about a parrot who was raised in captivity and learned to “speak” differently than the parrots out in the wild, which was inspired by a real study. So, we talked in-depth about accents and how to accept accents as a family. Frances also shared her breadth of wisdom around raising bilingual children. This episode is pure gold and you want to be sure to give it a listen.
Instead of being a summary of the episode, this blog post dives a bit deeper into some interesting facts about accents and how they show up in everyday life. So, instead of assuming you are already familiar with the idea of having an accent, let’s start with the basics:
What Does it Mean to Have an Accent?
When most people think of accents, they typically think of someone who has a strong foreign accent. However, having an accent can mean a lot of different things. In general, an accent is any difference in the way someone speaks from the norm (of the area where you live- there is no truly universal norm).
Interestingly, everyone has an accent. Even if you think you don’t have one, you actually do. This can be due to a variety of factors, such as where someone is from, the dialect they speak, or even just the way they were raised.
I will never forget the day I was teaching English as a Second Language in a city far from the one I was raised. The lead teacher laughed aloud when I said the word carrot and commented on my mid-western accent. My response was “I don’t have an accent…You do!”.
The reality is, we both, even as native English speakers, pronounce the word differently. Neither of us is wrong, we were just taught to say the word in a different way. Each region develops its own unique way of speaking and pronouncing certain words.
What About Accentless English?
Even within the English language, there are wildly different accents and pronunciations. The English you hear in Australia will sound quite different from the English you would hear in the U.S. or Great Britain. Even if you put together a group of people who all speak English as their first language, you would hear wildly different pronunciations. That is because there is no one way to speak English.
The “accentless” way of speaking is often referred to as Standard American English (SAE). SAE is considered the neutral form of English and is typically used in business and academic settings. It is a very real idea, but in practice, there is much more variance than we’d like to admit.
You see, in everyday conversations, we all break rules outlined in the SAE grammar books because that is the accepted norm in our region. In the same way, SAE is not more prestigious or better than any other version of English. The only reason SAE exists is because of the social power and prestige certain people groups have attached to it.
So, sorry friends, accentless English isn’t a thing. There is an accent we’ve accepted as the standard but it is still an accent. Which means, there is no one correct way to speak- there are many correct ways.
Having an Accent is a Good Thing
While having an accent can sometimes be seen as a disadvantage, there are many benefits to embracing accents within your family. For one thing, having an accent can help build connections with others and deepen relationships. It points to your heritage, culture, and mother tongue.
It can also provide your children with unique perspectives on the world, helping them develop a broader worldview and gain a deeper understanding of different cultures. When we witness other people’s reactions to different accents, it helps us be more reflective of our own actions and reactions.
Often people who move to a new country where they are no longer a native speaker prefer to keep their accent alive because it points to their native language and national identity. As long as they can speak the target language in a way that is understood, there is no need to erase your accent when you are learning English or another foreign language. Having an accent just shows that you speak more than one language and that is nothing to be ashamed of.
What is a Regional Accent?
Regional accents are specific to a certain geographical region. This can be due to a variety of factors, such as the dialect spoken in that region, the way people are raised, or even just the accents of the people who live there.
What Are Foreign Accents?
Foreign accents are the result of being raised in a country that speaks a language other than the one spoken in the community the speaker is currently in. This generally means that the person speaks a second language or even several languages.
Often, people who have foreign accents are seen as being ‘different’ or ‘exotic’. This can sometimes lead to discrimination and misunderstanding. Believe it or not, saying, “I love your British accent!” does not feel like a compliment. The person you are speaking to likely hears, you are different, an “other”, and not fully accepted here.
Although that was not your intention with the comment, let’s explore ways you could respond with empathy and true kindness instead.
Tips to Embrace Accents as a Family
Be a Good Role Model
One of the things Frances Díaz Evans, our guest on this podcast episode, mentions several times is the importance of setting a good example for your kids.
We are our kid’s role models. They become a reflection of our ideals and values. Therefore, make sure you are portraying the kind of person you want them to become. Take the time to evaluate your own biases and how they show up in everyday life.
If you want your kids to have diverse friends, you need to have diverse friends too. That doesn’t mean saying hello to the mailman or the checkout person at the grocery store.
By having diverse friends we mean a person you truly, deeply care about that you interact with regularly. All too often, we look at the idea of having diverse friends as a box to check to prove you are a good person. If the relationship is about you, you aren’t actually in a relationship friend. When you get to the point where you care more about the other person than you do your own agenda, you’ve reached true friendship.
Interact with Empathy
When you are interacting with a person who has a strong accent or feel the urge to comment on their accent, put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if they made the same comment, or face, to you? Be very conscious of your body language and tone in your conversation. Let’s do an experiment. Imagine you are hearing these two phrases said to you:
The speaker looks at you with a genuinely apologetic face and says, “I am so sorry. I didn’t get that. Could you please repeat what you said?”
The speaker gives you a confused and annoyed look and says, “I didn’t understand you. Say it again.”
How did you feel? Which option would you prefer to hear? Choose that one.
Expose your Children to Diverse Accents
Another thing we talk about is the importance of exposing your kids to different accents so that they get used to hearing their language spoken in various, equally valid, and correct, ways. You can use TV programs, radio stations, and podcasts to expose your children to varying accents and train their ears to easily understand different accents.
In the podcast, I mention how annoyed I get when people “pretend” not to understand my son or me in Spanish or my husband in English. In my opinion, they just aren’t trying hard enough. However, the reality is that where we live in the US and where my husband grew up in Mexico, there aren’t a lot of speakers of other languages. They aren’t used to hearing their language pronounced in a new way. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways we can train our ears to avoid that pitfall.
Help Your Kids Know How to Respond
If your child is bilingual or speaks multiple languages, it is likely that he or she will at some point need to defend his or her accent. You can help your child prepare by walking them through the situation ahead of time. Here are a few tips you could offer:
- Remember they aren’t trying to offend you. They just aren’t used to hearing the language spoken that way.
- Remind them that you speak multiple languages and that is why you pronounce some sounds differently.
- Calmly ask them to teach you how you could say it differently and thank them for their help.
- Remember that being bilingual is your superpower (as Frances would say). It is not something to be ashamed of.
- If you speak Spanish, read “Coco la Cotorra Puertoriqueña“. Your child will be empowered and encouraged by how Coco handled the same situation.
If you are raising bilingual kids, Frances offered so many wonderful tips for raising bilingual kiddos well. You want to listen to the full episode to hear all her wisdom.
Accents are a beautiful part of our linguistic diversity, and we should all learn to embrace them. By addressing our own biases, exposing ourselves and our kids to different accents, and putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes and interacting with empathy, we can become more understanding and tolerant of the many ways that people express themselves around the world. Be sure to listen to the full podcast episode for all the great tips on embracing accents and raising bilingual kids.