Monday, December 7, 2009

Do I have an accent?

A few weeks ago, a very funny thing happened to me. It was late in the evening and I was coming back home by dolmuş (shared taxi) with a friend of mine. Suddenly a girl looked back saying ‘Are you Polish?’. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘How do you know that?’. ‘You speak with a Polish accent. I worked with Poles in the UK, that’s why I can tell’.

The look on my face was probably priceless as in the MasterCard commercial.

You see, for a non NEST, that’s like a slap on the face

Not that I care. Honestly. Those of you, who have actually talked to me, may voice their opinion if desired.

The dolmuş incident made me think about accents a great deal.

Is having a native speaker-like accent really that important?

Like many non NESTs I was brought up on the Grammar Translation method and I’m a living proof that it works, regardless of the bad press it has received. If you ask me about the accents of my former teachers, however, I have to say I do not recall, as they did not really speak any English during classes.

Actually, I started speaking English and paying attention to pronunciation at university when we started a phonetics class. The aim was to make us speak with an RP accent and I can still remember the ridiculous dialogues from ‘How now, brown cow’ by Mimi Ponsonby. Apparently I was very prone to drilling as, surprisingly, my score at the end of the course was pretty high.

Anyhow, one of best English teachers I had before entering the university spoke with a very heavy Polish accent. Yet she managed to prepare me (at that time a high school student from the middle of nowhere) for the English Philology entry exam well enough to pass it without major problems.

Did her accent bother us? Sure.
Was she a successful teacher? Absolutely!

How do you feel about that? Both NESTs and non NESTs are welcome to share ideas!

P.S. Having spent hours thinking and analyzing, I know why that girl in the dolmuş thought I was Polish. But I guess I am going to keep it a secret ;) 


  1. Were you wearing your "Poland does it better" T-shirt? ;-P

    But of course you have an accent. We all do. This person was just showing off that she pegged yours, the same way that I might try to guess where a fellow Englishman were from. As long as we don't hang our prejudices off them, accents are beautiful things to be cherished!

  2. Thanks for coming back Darren!

    No, I didn't wear a "Poland does it better" T-shirt that day.

    But I sure have a whole bunch of them at home ;-P

  3. As long as the accent is understandable, I would say it's not important. Native speaker accents are no different. I couldn't understand the dude from New York that asked "wit way is nof?" or many Scots when they are drunk. It's all about intelligibility, not where you are from or what accent you have.

  4. Scots, drunk?

    What are you sayimg, Nick?

  5. Your question is interesting, and the responses so far are as well...So far, NESTs saying that a non-NEST accent is okay, and I totally agree.

    But I suspect that you are not alone in taking your mastery of pronunciation as a matter of pride; I do the same (granted I'm not a Spanish teacher, but speaking simply from the point of view of a speaker of a second language learned as an adult).

    Personally, I tend to think I have a fairly decent "native-ish" accent in Spanish, but there are plenty of times when an especially "American" sounding vowel or consonant sound slips out and it's frustrating!

    I don't think it's a big deal either way, but I think as language learners and language speakers we all have our personal standards that we try to meet--not to look good in the eyes of others but for our own personal satisfaction. And that's okay too!

    Nice blog, BTW!

  6. Nicky,

    Thanks for admitting that NESTs have similar feelings about accents :)

    Will take a look at your blog shortly!


  7. I'm saying I've met a drunk Scot or 5 in my travels :)

    Hey Anita. You should add a subscribe to comments plug-in.

  8. Well, I've received a comment on my accent as well. The best part of it is - it was in Poland. I talked to a British person there and she said my accent was "interesting". Not British, not American and definitely not Polish :-/ Huh???

  9. Agata, you got my point!
    I've heard tons of things about my accent but never that it sounded Polish :D

  10. Darren got it right. We all have an accent, the question is how you see it. I remember when I used to teach Italian students, they couldn't understand why they should try to improve their pronunciation. "I'm Italian," they'd say. "Why would I want to sound British?"
    I've noticed here in Poland students are often very concerned that their accents are not 'native speaker' like. But the problem is that there is no real British or US accent. RP is an invented accent, only (a few) English teachers tend to have it!

  11. This has been an interesting conversation.

    Since I was a child, my family moved to better jobs so my younger sister could be closer to doctors. Every time we moved, there would be comments on "our accents" in whatever state in the USA where we moved.

    These comments didn't bother us, but it was pretty funny when my Spanish teacher told me that I had an Italian accent. I find accents very interesting and enjoyable.

  12. Almost similar experience I had, 4 years ago, I was visiting the UNAM in Mexico. When I asked for a colleague to a Mexican professor, he replied: "You are Peruvian, are you?"
    I think there's no a unique accent in English, American or British, the pluricultural diversity is expressed through lots of dialects around the world; and the most important point is to communicate thoughts, views, beliefs, feelings, emotions, etc. fluently. In addition, most of EFL teachers are not English native speakers, so our main task is to teach students to establish and keep conversations.

  13. "I’m a living proof that it works"

    You're living proof that it works for highly motivated and academic students when taught by a good teacher and combined with other techniques (for example the pron drilling you mentioned, and no doubt the major reading and listening you did outside class). Unfortunately, for the vast majority of other students, such as me doing O Level French, it fails us very badly indeed.

  14. Julian, Samccoy, Victor and Alex - thanks a lot for your comments!

    Alex - I hoped somebody would react to the 'living proof' :) My guess is that all methods or approaches in pure form have plenty of drawbacks.
    Funny how I also haven't managed to learn French. In my case, the teacher made use of too much of, what he though was, communicative approach.

  15. Coming back with another comment on accent. Here in Brazil I hear it everyday - "You're not from here, right? You've got different accent." That's something we'll always have. AN ACCENT. You don't have one only when you live in one place for the whole life. Well, ok, you do have an accent even then, but simply nobody notices it. It's definitely better to be noticed than treated indifferently!

  16. Actually you're living proof that ANY method would have worked for you, because as Alex says, you were motivated and 'academic' (it's not politically correct to mention intelligence, is it?)
    The real test of a method is how it works for the unmotivated majority of us (that includes me.)
    The real truth I suppose is that methodology is a bit overrated. If someone wants to learn ,they will. But if they don't ......

  17. Yes, I can imagine that there are a lot of Turks who want to learn to speak English with a Polish accent. Probably your school promotes it as its USP, right?

  18. By the way, when I speak Polish, after I've said just one or two words people usually ask me where in England I'm from! Presumably I must have such a thick accent they know I'm English. It's either that or the bowler hat and the umbrella I always carry around with me.

  19. Hi, there! I don't think speaking like a native speaker is important. What's more important is that you are globally comprehensible. Among Asians, the mentality that Native English teachers are the best still persists. Training and experience and passion are what makes a great teacher.