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!