Posts Tagged ‘Foreign Accents’

Are you from São Paulo? – foreign accents

January 7, 2010

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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Você é paulista?

July 8, 2009

As I write this entry I have been in Salvador, Bahia for over the past 7 weeks.  Our students have been here as part of the UT summer program and I am the faculty lead.  Recently I spent a few nights with friends celebrating São João, which is actually a pretty big deal here in Bahia.  Language wise, at one point I was in a row boat with a guy who was showing me the various houses and property along the lake.  He asked if I was from São Paulo.  Oh course, as a non native speaker, the greatest compliment that you can receive is to have someone think that you are a native speaker.  The illusion only lasts temporarily I am sure, but it’s fun while it lasts.  Later that day another person said something to the effect that what I had said was totally “paulista” and that here in Bahia people don’t say things that way.  Then it happened again, after talking to a guy who was selling things on the street, he asked if I was from São Paulo.

All of this got me thinking about what sticks with us when learning foreign languages.  I certainly don’t make any conscious effort to speak like a Paulista, but obviously something about my experience of learning Portuguese in São Paulo (over 30 years ago) has remained with me.  And it isn’t just the Paulista issue.  We have joked for years that I speak Spanish with a Portuguese accent.  Go figure, a Canadian born American who speaks Spanish with Brazilian accent!

Somehow learning that isn’t conscious sticks with us more.  Over the years I have also noted this among my students.  Two brief examples.  Students who learn Portuguese at school use “nós” for “we”.  Students who learn Portuguese in Brazil use “a gente”.  It’s just more common among native speakers.  We teach this to students a school, but it doesn’t stick until they spend time in Brazil.  Second, students who learn Portuguese via textbooks learn “pôr” to express “to put”.  Students who learn Portuguese in Brazil avoid “pôr” (highly irregular) and end up using “botar” (totally regular).

Bottom line:  I hope that my students are having a great time here in Salvador, but even more than that, I expect that they will subconsciously learn tons of Portuguese.