Musings on Accent – a double-edged tongue? (by Dr Caroline Riches)

What is it about accents that we find so interesting? I am intrigued by accents in terms of language dialects and varieties, accents of plurilingual speakers in their language repertoire and accents of L2 learners. I am fascinated by the regional accents of French in Quebec [you can tell if a francophone is from Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean or Abitibi, for example, from their accent (Brad, 2014)], which I think are Canada’s answer to Trudgill’s example of regional accents of English in England in his Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society classic (2000). 

Although immediately, as I began to write this blog post, I wondered if everyone is as fascinated by different accents as I am. I am English-Canadian, and grew up in very WASP[1]ish areas of Toronto, Pittsburgh and Montreal – looking back now, I imagine that I did not hear a lot of language diversity in my formative years.  Do I notice accents more than other people? It is different for those who grew up in more multilingual environments? Or is it just that I am interested in anything to do with language?

While I thoroughly enjoyed all of my linguistics classes in my BA in Linguistics at the University of Alberta, I particularly enjoyed my phonology class (shout out to Dr. Bruce Derwing!) and I continue to draw on the knowledge I acquired in Introductory Phonology when considering and noticing accents. I enjoy being able to explain the complexities of pronunciation to non-linguists, and why some sounds are more difficult for second language (L2) learners than others – such as the l/r distinction for

Japanese learners of English (in English these are phonemes which differentiate meaning, e.g. ‘rice’ and ‘lice’. In Japanese  r and l equivalents are not part of the phonemic inventory, rather the Japanese r is a sound kind of in between r and l)  [I have hugely oversimplified this, click on  L/R-Explained for a really engaging and in-depth explanation]. Or my own difficulty in French in pronouncing the difference in words like ‘dessus’ (‘above’) and ‘dessous’ (‘below’), as English does not have the closed front vowel sound /y/ that occurs in dessus to contrast with the back vowel /u/ in dessous.

My master’s thesis researched native English speakers’ perceptions of non-native English speakers’ errors (Riches, 1984). I contrasted errors in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. To create the ESL ‘errors’, I selected a few of my non-native English-speaking students and friends, to represent a range of L1s and ESL learner levels, and had them audiotape the stimuli. I still remember when I asked my L1 Spanish speaking friend, whose accent I liked as I thought he sounded very much like Ricardo Montalban (click on JohnnyCarson-Interview-RicardoMontalban, to hear what I mean), I expected him to be flattered, instead he told me he disliked his accent in English – I had unwittingly touched a nerve. Recently, a francophone colleague (who is also a French teacher, and with whom I only speak French), told me that she thought my accent in French was ‘cute’. Alternatively, I was recently also told that my accent in Spanish ‘es muy bueno’. I embraced the latter comment, but didn’t feel as good about the former. In considering why, I think back to my friend who sounded like Ricardo Montalban – what do we aspire to as L2 learners? Our accents mark us as different or distinct when noticed. When not noticed, does that contribute to a sense of belonging?

When I first meet someone with an accent (yes, I know, we all have accents, I mean someone who sounds different than me), I like guessing or asking where they are from. Though more recently I sometimes hesitate, as I’ve realized not all people take this as a compliment or as a social turn but, I fear, perceive such a question as invasive or critical. Do they maybe interpret my question as suggesting they don’t belong? In most cases, I think people interpret my question as interest in them as people, or at least as an effective conversation starter. When I am travelling outside of

Canada, I personally like being asked where I am from [though I don’t like being asked if I am from the U.S. — why is that, I wonder? (Ladegaard & Sachdev, 2006)]. I want my accent to define me as a Canadian, as part of my identity! My husband moved to Canada from Trinidad at an age which meant he retained his Trinidadian accent, and he did not try to ‘lose’ his accent to fit in but was

proud of it (McCrocklin & Link, 2016). Trinidad’s population mainly self-identify as Black, of East Indian origin, of Chinese origin, Mixed and a very small percentage identify as White.  My husband belongs to the last category. Over the years there have been a few interesting, and sometimes disturbing, situations related to his accent. There have been assumptions made by parties at work that he had only spoken to on the phone and upon meeting face-to-face there was visible surprise on their part (which precipitated my husband adding his own ‘audible minority’ box on the federal-government-mandated employment equity survey). Sometimes in his initial interactions with other English speakers, there seems to be an adjustment phase, and I have had to actually translate. I interpret this as people not being able to reconcile reality with expectations quickly enough (Beukeboom, 2014). And finally, there once was a comment made by a speech therapist who assumed his accent had something to do with successful speech therapy (she really should have known better!).

And so there is a lot more to accents that initially meets the eye, or ear to be more precise. Apart from accent representing language diversity, it also involves attitudes and perceptions (self and of others), mismatched expectations and stereotyping, and identities and belonging.    


[1] White Anglo-Saxon Protestant

References

Beukeboom, C. J. (2014). Mechanisms of linguistic bias: How words reflect and maintain stereotypic expectancies. In J. Laszlo, J. Forgas & O. Vincze (Eds.), Social cognition and communication (pp. 313–330). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Brad. (2014, Nov 12). “Our 32 accents” Series: Canadian French in Quebec Culture Blog: Bridging the Two Solitudes through everything – There’s little else like it on the web! Retrieved from https://quebeccultureblog.com/2014/11/12/canadian-french-accents-post-1-in-our-32-accents-series-86/

Ladegaard, Hans J. & Sachdev, I. (2006). ‘I like the Americans… but I certainly don’t aim for an American accent’: Language attitudes, vitality and foreign language learning in Denmark. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 27:2, 91-108. DOI: 10.1080/01434630608668542

McCrocklin, S. & Link, S. (2016). Accent, identity, and a fear of loss?: ESL students’ perspectives. The Canadian Modern Language Review / La revue canadienne des langues vivantes 72(1), 122-148. University of Toronto Press. Retrieved April 25, 2019, from Project MUSE database.

Riches, C. (1984). Native English speaker reactions to ESL learner errors. Unpublished M.Sc. Thesis. Edmonton, Alta: University of Alberta.

Trudgill, P. (2000). Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society. London: Penguin.

One thought on “Musings on Accent – a double-edged tongue? (by Dr Caroline Riches)

  1. I have been interested in accents, though I haven’t studied them. Growing up in Milwaukee, I was told that I sounded like I was from the north side, true, because I said PEN for the writing instrument, but south siders used a PIN to write a letter. I move to Iowa to go to college and I don’t remember noticing accents. Now I live in Northern Mn and a couple of times I was asked, elsewhere, if I’m from Canada because of how I pronounce the ow vowel combo. People talk about a Minnesota accent and reference the movie Fargo, but we don’t actually talk like the people in that movie. I do hear a distinct Iron Range accent from some who live on the east end of the Range. And my husband’s cousin has a sort of twang; he’s from Southern Mn.

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