Talking about accents

Last night I went to the class meeting for my older daughter’s new class. Over the course of the meeting, I asked a couple of questions. Today, my daughter came home upset, because the father of a girl in her class said that I “talk French funny”. Now I am presuming that he was referring to the fact that I am Canadian (and anglophone) and so I don’t always have a “standard” French accent. Frankly, I was pretty irritated that I had to defend my French skills to my daughter, and give her a mini-lesson on accent and language use.
Shortly after this, I was having a conversation with another Mum at swimming, and she recounted her lunch hour trauma at her boys’ school. She went in as a volunteer lunch supervisory, and had some behavior problems from the kids in the class. As she was explaining to them why she wasn’t happy, one kid put up his hand and told her that “she doesn’t speak very good Dutch” (she is Italian). Needless to say, she was both hurt and offended.
Which leads me to a point that I make in every parent seminar that I do. When we live in a multilingual world, every comment and criticism we make about language, language use, speakers of other languages is a learning situation for our children. If we comment on someone’s accent, it cues in to our children that accent is important, and somehow hierarchical. Our children learn their attitudes about language mostly from us – if we show a good example of inclusiveness and acceptance, chances are our children will pick that up. If we evaluate, criticize or categorize, our children will do the same.
So, we all have a responsibility to think carefully about how we speak of other languages, other languages speakers, other accents before we make a comment in front of our children about how someone speaks a language that is not their own. After all, an accent is not inherently a negative thing – it’s marker of where in the language world we come from, a marker of our culture and heritage and above all, an indication that we are making an effort to speak a language that we are not a native speaker of. Surely that should be lauded and not criticized?
(Yes, I am a bit hot under the collar about this…)

4 thoughts on “Talking about accents

  1. Olga @The EuropeanMama says:

    Yes. even though I speak really good German, Germans often tell me: “You only have a slight accent, otherwise we wouldn’t know that you are not German”. They mean well, but what I hear is: “You will never be one of us, because you don’t speak like us”. But why would I be ashamed of not being German? Why do they expect me to speak German like they do? If I make a pun (a play on words) in German, it is assumed that I made a mistake, even though it takes high level of language knowledge to make puns at all! It is so annoying and patronizing!

    • eacrisfield says:

      Hi Olga – I just wanted to say that yesterday I finally put together your face and your blog! For some reason I thought that you (the blogger you) did not live in the Netherlands! It’s a pleasure to “know” you now.

      • Olga @The EuropeanMama says:

        Yes, sometimes it’s hard to put face and blog together- it was great to see you at the fair. I am looking forward to your future workshops- I will miss the October one, but I hope to attend the next ones!

  2. expatsincebirth says:

    Yes, it’s very irritating if someone tells you that you have an accent. But to be honest: who doesn’t? I find it interesting to know many people from different parts of the countries whose languages I speak and maybe it’s the linguist in me: I’m fascinated about these comments. I always ask what exactly they mean. Sometimes they can’t even tell “what makes you sound funny” and they realise that what they did was inappropriate. Sometimes they just don’t get it and I don’t insist – and honestly, I don’t bother.
    Have you ever noticed that those who do criticise your accent are usually those who are unhappy with their own competence in languages?
    I totally agree that we have to be very careful how we – as adults, parents, teachers (!) – talk about languages. I never make comments on others’ accents, and my children don’t do this either. But it happened a few times that children who were mothertongue criticised my children about their pronunciation. Fortunately I was there and was able to intervene. I recall one episode, when a child said that my son was producing a sound in a “funny way”. My son wasn’t upset, but he didn’t know what to answer (he was 5). I had the opportunity to explaine to the kids how different this sound can be pronounced in several languages and the child did understand that my son was able to pronounce it in all these varieties. Me made a game out of this. But I know that sometimes these comments come out of the blue and we’re not prepared to them. I usually have standard reactions to this: “how would you say/pronounce this?… what makes it sound so “funny” to you?… this is interesting, tell my what makes you laugh…”
    What I would like to suggest: if we react to these comments by being irritated, we do exactly what they want: we get upset, we feel weak. But if we don’t take it serious, they have to explain, to justify what they just did. And: it’s not our problem, it’s theirs… – Thank you for talking about this topic. (and sorry for my looooong comment: it’s just a fascinating topic)

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