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Why losing a foreign accent can be worthwhile … Water. 20th of March, 2006 ANTE·MERIDIEM 11:26

I feel like recycling myself today :-) . This is from a comment on http://​positiveanymore.​blogspot.​com/​2006/​03/​american-insecurity.​html , where Ben says that he thinks English speakers have a positive prejudice to people speaking English with a non-native accent:

I’m not from the US, but English is my first language, and I don’t really share the positive attitude you describe to noticeable non-native accents in English. I mean, in general, talking to and dealing with someone through English who has a noticeable non-native accent is not something I have a problem with, I can express myself clearly enough, and I’ve had exposure to enough foreign accents that comprehension is almost never a problem. (One exception is when word stress goes awry, which can make things incomprehensible.)

But when talking to someone with a native-speaker accent, and the effect is more intense when I encounter someone with the accent I grew up with, I’m a little more relaxed, I’m more certain that I can make pop culture references non-native speakers won’t get, that I can use obscure but apt words, that I can predict with a fair degree of accuracy their sense of humour. And this becomes self-fulfilling; someone with no need to understand what a given 80s TV show was about is unlikely to learn about it, or refer to it on their own, a detail that would immediately mark them as comfortable with the local culture.

I noticed in the French-speaking world that as my accent got better the reaction of people on hearing me speak changed; expressions of uncertainty as to whether I had understood something disappeared, people joked more, I laughed more. And my comprehension hadn’t got noticeably better, just my accent.

This contrasts with my experience in Germany—pronouncing things well and clearly doesn’t make things that much easier and doesn’t seem to make the people I’m speaking with noticeably more comfortable. This is, I imagine, because German phonology is less complex than that of English or French, and getting the accent right is one of the first things people learning it as a second language do.

Another thing that may go towards explaining the difference in reaction in Germany is that German orthography is pretty reasonable while both English orthography and that of French are batѕhіt insane, so there is less chance of getting the small details wrong—say, [sɔleɪː] for « soleil » or [sampatik] for « sympathique » as the woman in Pink Martini puts it—for people who learn the written form of a word first, something more common among second-language learners than among first language learners.

Addendum: Ben replies to me there that “ultimately, what [I’m] pointing out is that a speaker is only truly comfortable in his or her native language, and that comfort is contagious, and I think this is true.” Which underlines the disadvantage of writing scads of text on a topic of limited general interest; people don’t read it :-) .

Word of the day: Об is Tajik for “water.”


If only I could find a source for a story my cog psyc professor told us before we started running experiments for him. The story had something to do with the pronunciation of the people conducting an experiment biasing the outcome of the experiment.

From what I recall, one experimentor was biased to expect one outcome from the experiment, the other experimentor, the opposite. Their results came out according to their biases. They followed the same procedure, but their voices sounded subtly different depending on what they believed.

so, if I’m not confabulating, and my prof really did tell me that, and he wasn’t making it up (if if if)—I wonder why people with drawls haven’t taken over?

Trust me, I’m Texan.


I suspect one’s reaction to a given accent (or just to a drawl) depends on one’s background, and that’s why people with drawls are not running, say, Australia. That said, you’ll notice there’s a New Englander with a drawl running the US ...

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