Recently, I was part of a semester course introduction to a general assembly of new students at a university where I was an invited lecturer. As there were many class groups for the new course in diversity management, each of the faculty members were asked on stage to introduce themselves without telling where they were from. The students were prepped to identify, from each professor's accent, where she or he originated.
Given my playfully perverse mentality at such moments, I used my best Emerald Isle accent in telling who I was, and I was enthusiastically and unanimously identified by the students as Irish. Then, I had to admit that I was basically an Ohio boy from a Polish and Austrian immigrant background, who grew up in ethnic neighborhoods and learned to imitate the accents found on the streets close to home. As kids, we had the habit of imitating our strange neighbors' accents. Later, I discovered that this naughty childhood mockery served me well, at least in one sense, when, in my 20s, I started taking Russian lessons and astounded the teacher with my ability to effortlessly produce what were normally difficult Slavic vocables.
Accents can be a blessing or curse depending on the context in which one finds oneself, or the context in which others find you or place you in. An accent can be charming and seductive, intelligible or unintelligible to those one must deal with, or, the marker of an alien origin or class background disdained by the listeners, stirring up prejudice and rejection or worse. Shibboleths abound in history, where the pronunciation of passwords was used to identify and usually dispatch an enemy infiltrator.
So, accent flexibility could well be an asset, though rarely recognized as such. In practical everyday situations, however, the necessity to communicate clearly often requires that one's accent be modified in the non-native language that one is speaking. This used to be described as accent reduction, aimed at getting rid of word habits where pronunciation was confusing or unintelligible. Language teachers and coaches were often pressed into service or paid to assist in this process.
More recently, however, we have begun to call it accent acquisition. This is an important step forward, because it carries overtones of skill development and replaces the subtext that implied, "There something wrong with you that you have to fix." Accent acquisition puts the accent on one's ability to learn and use something new and broaden one's capabilities.
For those of us engaged in the intercultural field, it seems to me that a lot of the work there is also done from a perspective of coping with one's difference and correcting one's native habits as faux pas rather being positively styled as empowering folks to supplement their skills and acquire new ones. Shifting this perspective, moving the accent from that of losing or forgetting one's past to that of acquiring new ways of being and behaving can be a very empowering approach. I can still remember with great sadness how much was lost in my own family and in my own life, where the watchword was escaping from the past, hiding the "old country" languages and behaviors from the next generation in the name of being accepted into the dominant culture.
In my next post, I will talk about some accent management practices that I've learned for myself and used with others.
Image: How do you pronounce that word?!