I’ve been thinking about the concept of an “accent” lately. For the sake of simplifying the matter we’ll stick to accents of the English language in this post. Having grown up in Canada, I am very accustomed to the Canadian/American accent, if I may use these terms interchangeably. To me, Canadian/American English is “standard” English – I may not even consider them to be accents. Of course, living in Toronto, a very multicultural city, I’ve been exposed to many different types of accents – a few examples are Chinese, Indian, and Korean – and it’s all been very normal for me.
It wasn’t until I started living in Europe that I began to gain a broader insight into what it means to have an accent. English is widely spoken and you can find a myriad of accents – Spanish, German, French, Scottish, Welsh…you name it. I realized that my definition of “accents” may have been skewed. People have accents not because they don’t have a good grasp of the English language – on the contrary, many people with “accents” may have a better command of the English language than I do (English is my second language). I began to understand that an accent is merely a difference in pronunciation or word usage that is due to regional variations and language patterns of one’s mother tongue. It has nothing to do with a person’s understanding of the language or ability to use it.
We probably all have an accent. (Image taken from http://assets.wheelercentre.com.)
It is true that many people speak English as a second or third language (or a second “first” language). However, some accents are very similar to the American accent, so much that I sometimes can’t even pinpoint it, and I wonder if that’s just the way it is, or if the way that these people have learned English has been influenced by the American culture. And I admit, with strong accents (anything that is distinctively different from American or British), I sometimes make the mistake of judging the speaker and thinking that they don’t speak English fluently. I don’t deny that learning and mastering a new language is a difficult task, but to assume that someone is “bad” at English based on an accent is the wrong way of going about it.
I think in some way, the term “accent” has gained a slightly negative connotation in our society through stereotypical generalizations and is even derogatory in some cases. If someone has an accent, then they are automatically labelled as a foreigner who may not be as adept as a native user at speaking or writing the language (in reality that may not be true), and unfortunately sometimes they are looked down upon. Sometimes I hesitate using the word “accent” as I don’t know whether it could offend someone, especially in Glasgow, where English IS the official language. I’ve come to make this city my home, yet I am complaining about the Glaswegians having an accent that is difficult to understand – isn’t that a little…rude, somehow? I am the foreigner here and I am the one with the accent, no? Or is there such thing as “proper” English in the first place?
Maybe I am just overthinking it. If we have to get to the root of it, then any variation of English would be an accent except for the very original English, which I suppose came from…England? Then the English British accent should be the most standard one while the Canadian/American accent is no different than, say, an Australian accent. So, while my spoken English may sound perfectly normal in Canada or parts of the US, in the UK, I am probably regarded as someone with a silly Canadian accent 😛