Are you from São Paulo? – foreign accents

I’ve been thinking lately about foreign accents and what type of accent we have when speaking another language.  Three major thoughts are coming together.  Bare with me.

First, whenever I speak Portuguese, people almost always ask if I am from São Paulo.  Truth told, I think it’s cool because it’s a sign that my Portuguese is pretty good–it’s part of the whole “American who speaks Portuguese well enough that people think I’m Brazilian” ego trip.  The reason my Portuguese sounds like a Paulista’s is because I learned to speak Portuguese by living in São Paulo.  I didn’t learn Portuguese in a classroom setting.  Of course I was trying to speak well, but I never really ever thought of pronunciation specifically. I just learned to say what I heard while interacting with people.

Second, my Spanish accent is a mess (confessions of a university professor who teaches courses in phonetics for heavens sake!!!).  I have traveled a lot in Mexico, Venezuela, Spain, Peru, and Chile, but my Spanish is a product of academic learning.  No part of the Spanish speaking world represents “my” way of speaking Spanish.  My “standard Spanish” means that it is nobody’s Spanish.  In fact, even when I speak Spanish, most people ask if I am Brazilian.  Yes, I speak Spanish with a Brazilian accent! But it is only natural that a “book learning” approach to language learning will not produce an accent of a specific region.  The same is true of my limited “standard” German, Italian, and Japanese. In those languages, I’m just happy to try to communicate something and I seldom give a second thought to any regional accent (although Berlin would be cool with me).

Third, and this is why I have been thinking of this blog topic, I plan on going to Beijing next summer, specifically to improve my Chinese language skills.  To date, whenever I have studied Chinese I have avoided the /r/ sound that is typical of Beijing (e.g., I say “nǎli” for “where” and not “nǎr”). The /r/ sounds have always sounded rather harsh to me.  But now I find myself thinking that since my first extended stay in China will be in Beijing, if I want to learn Chinese well, I should do everything I can to imitate the Chinese that I actually hear in Beijing.  The whole process has messed with my mind, but I have already started to identify with Beijing.  Consequently I find myself wanting to imitate more their accent.

So what does all of this mean for language learners and where does “accent” fit into our language learning?

On one end of the spectrum, from a practical perspective, it means that the importance of native pronunciation is overstated.  That is to say, my “standard” Spanish language skills are just as functional as my “Paulista” Portuguese.  In this sense, pronunciation doesn’t really matter.  However, on the other end of the spectrum, from a personal perspective, my experience in  São Paulo is a gigantic part of who I am.  To me it’s a very big deal. Over the years I have seen this over and over again with my students.  I often hear the pronunciation of students who have studied abroad in a certain country for 6 months, and for the rest of their life their “foreign” accent will imitate what they learned in that first experience abroad.  They just simply identify with that first experience.

Time will tell whether my Chinese experience will be more like my Spanish or more like São Paulo. Deep down I’m hoping it will be like the latter. Beijing, bring it on!

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8 Responses to “Are you from São Paulo? – foreign accents”

  1. John Says:

    Thought-provoking post!

    When I first learned Mandarin in China, I did so somewhat self-consciously, because I was aware that the southern accent in China carries a stigma, endearing as it may be to the southerners themselves. While learning from the natives in the south, I always kept my distance, looking words up in the dictionary every time, because every “s,” “z,” and “c” sound was suspect.

    Learning in Beijing, you don’t have that problem. Not only does the Beijing accent carry no stigma, but I’m pretty sure that the better you can imitate it, the better your Chinese will be perceived to be, “communicative competence” or “fluency” aside.

    Go for it!

  2. Tommy Says:

    I like your take on this topic. I’m always a fan of questions about the “sound” of our languages.

    I agree that we should we accept our accents as reflections of their sources, whether first-hand experiences on location or academic “experiences” in the classroom or office. I do believe, however, that accents should not be accepted in the same way most people accept the color of our eyes. This is why we need speech therapists and singing/acting coaches in our own native languages – clear, comprehensible, flexible, dynamic, and engaging speech is not always natural and effortless. In the same way that athletes train their minds and bodies for performance, academics too should not ignore the biological aspect of vocal/accent training.

    In your experience, do you feel that it is better for a potential student of a foreign language to NOT study the language academically prior to experiencing it first-hand somehow? With Portuguese, were you exposed to didactic resources before or during your initial exposure to the language?

  3. Orlando Says:

    Wow Tommy, let’s see how delicately I can answer this (knowing that I am a university professor who teaches foreign languages in an academic setting)!!!

    Easy positive version answer: I have often seen the results of students who spend time abroad to study foreign languages. Those who have a foundation of a couple of semesters of a foreign language (i.e., academic training) are able to use that foundation to get better faster, it really helps. Those that have no previous foundation, have a harder time and sometimes come home without having learned a lot of the foreign language. This is especially true of the shorter programs.

    Hard negative version answer: When students passively sit in a class and let the “system” be responsible for learning, generally not much learning actually takes place. In those situations, a student could take 100 classes and still not learn much of a foreign language at all.

    Bottom line: My role as a teacher of foreign languages, in the beginning level, is to motivate the learner to not be passive about the learning process. If that happens, then I can help create the foundation that will maximize their experience when they do get to spend time abroad.

    How about that for a good PC answer!!!

    Getting back to this blog post on accents, I do believe that academic learning will result in something like “standard Spanish” and will never result in a specific regional dialect, which is my experience with Spanish versus Portuguese.

    • Andrew Says:

      I haven’t checked your blogs since I took your phonetics class in Fall ’08! But I just wanted to share with you that I completely agree with both your post about accents, and your thoughts on those who sit idly in class and do not actively try to learn a new language.

      As a product of the system and full immersion, I learned my base knowledge of Spanish through my first three yeas of high school Spanish. But then I spent a year in Córdoba, Argentina, and it made me fluent, and my accent went from “standard” to full-on “cordobés.” When I would travel around Argentina with family and friends, everyone thought I was a native, born and raised in Córdoba, (the best part is telling them you aren’t, the look of astonishment is priceless). But after I returned home, a few years of Spanish class later, my accent went back to standard/Mexican, I even had to consciously make an effort to use my inherited pronunciation from Argentina. I think it’s safe to say that when you’re a non-native speaker of a foreign language, your accent is malleable, you can change depending on your where you are, but there are some things that give you away, for instance, vocabulary, or elongating the first syllable of words (a pretty distinctive feature of Córdoba).

      As for those who put foreign language education on their back-burners, maybe they shouldn’t force students to take 4 semesters of a language. Some people just aren’t meant to care about learning a foreign language, and it’s their loss.

  4. Tommy Says:

    Thanks for the response!

    I don’t mean to question the academic setting too much. What I suppose interests me here, as an extension of the question of developing an accent, is the initial stage of planting the seeds of a language within the academic/autodidactic setting.

    I really like that your goal is to motivate the beginning student to take an active part in the learning process. Your students are very fortunate to have you as a professor.

  5. Orlando Says:

    Andrew, what an interesting post. So you actually find yourself going back to the “standard” pronunciation when you were no longer in Argentina. How interesting. Here in our department there is a lecturer from Spain named Lucia. Even in her case, here in Texas, she has decided to change the pronunciation of her own name, avoiding the comments that people always gave her when she spoke with her “Spanish theta”. It’s a powerful example to show that people even change their own name.

  6. Erik Winther Paisley Says:

    Maybe it’s bad form commenting on a post this old, but I thought it was really interesting and wanted to share my experience. About 4 years ago, I spent 4½ months as an exchange student in a Swedish-speaking environment in Helsinki, Finland. Before coming to Finland, I’d studied Finnish and watched Finnish-Swedish TV, since I wanted to pick up that particular dialect of Swedish. I wanted to avoid some of the sounds I found most difficutl, and I liked the sound of it. I think it went quite well, but since then I’ve found it difficult not to drift toward the Standard, Middle Swedish mainstream linguistically.

    As for Mandairin, I’m sticking with Beijinghua :).

  7. Orlando Says:

    Hey Erik,
    No bad form at all, I appreciate your observation and it sounds like you know exactly where I was coming from.

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