Accent Shaming

by biltong101


This is an issue which I take rather personally and translating a Polish idiomatic expression “a knife opens in my pocket” every time I have to deal with. First I’ll speak about my personal experience of living with an accent (even sounds like a disease, doesn’t it?) and then I’ll discuss what certain prejudices mean for South Africans for whom English isn’t their first language.

The first issue is the arrogance. English speakers accept a whole variety of English speaking native accents (American, Australian, British, South African etc) as acceptable. Accent mostly has to do with where someone was born and yet for many there’s a strong division between what’s hot and what’s not. When you don’t sound like a native speaker you have to deal with patronizing comments and micro aggressions. “You have an accent” is the most ridiculous statement I’ve ever heard. Everyone has a fucking accent! Just say it straight, you arrogant buffoon, that my accent does not agree with what you consider to be “proper”. “You have an accent” is meant to be negative and read as “I can hear by the way you speak you’re not from here”. Guess what? I’m not! Sure some people put effort into sounding more like a native speaker and it’s their choice. Back in the days I also thought it was something one should do. Yet, after years of living in a foreign country I did get quite possessive over the way I speak. It doesn’t mean I’m making a conscious effort of not sounding more South African, but I don’t see why I should make an effort to sound in such a way either. Some people, of course, don’t just point out that I have an accent (thanks everyone who does that, btw, I did not know that! I’m happy you’re making me SO much more self-aware every day. You guys are amazing XOXO). There are those who while commenting on it will additionally call it weird or funny just to point out my alleged inferiority. Last but not least, there are the patronizing “well meant” comments such as “Your accent is so cute”, “Your husband must LOVE your accent” and so on and so forth.

In my opinion as long as you’re understood, it’s not anyone’s business what sort of accent you have. Unfortunately, many people don’t seem to share this view (nor care about your potential identity issues). After all, there’s a “proper” way of speaking and it’s not yours. You can’t do anything about not being born in certain places, but you could become the acceptable foreigner by loosing your accent. Even with my preference for keeping it, I just feel sometimes like perhaps I should give up and just change it so that I don’t have to reply to a question “Where do you come from?” every time I meet someone new. Or perhaps next time I’ll simply reply to this question with “From my mother’s vagina, how about you?”. Jokes aside (it was a good one, right?), sometimes I do get self-conscious because of people being rude. For instance last weekend I went to a supposedly international event and a South African girl asked me what’s WRONG with me that I still don’t sound South African after the time I spent in the country (followed by don’t you want to sound normal and similar…). Perhaps it says more about her than about me, though. There’s no such thing as a South African accent. Representatives of numerous cultural groups speak the language differently.  Apart from the “proper” accent there are first language Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu and other languages speakers, many of whom have accents and have to deal with similar attitudes in their daily life. Occasionally their English isn’t great (after all they do have their own native languages), but in most cases it’s excellent. Nevertheless, if they occasionally do struggle to express themselves in English it is attributed to their intelligence. Perhaps if such judgy English speakers took their heads out of their own asses and used their ears, they’d realize that the differences in accents actually don’t hinder comprehension. To be honest I rarely struggle to understand South Africans but I did have trouble before with some Americans from the South and British people particularly from Nuhgfgclgrd (= Newcastle).

The expectation in South Africa (Western Cape?) is to speak English flawlessly even though the country has 11 official languages. Of course, it’s rather culturally insensitive and of course most people, who expect everyone to sound like them in English, don’t have the same expectations towards themselves. They’re happy being monolingual and taking pride in their accent. Perhaps if they learnt another language they would realize that a second language speaker should be praised for how well they’ve learnt the language on the top of mastering his or her own. Even if they did that, they wouldn’t understand the struggle of those who had difficult educational circumstances. Maybe rather than be judgmental about accentual imperfections of others, such individuals should ask themselves: How well do I speak Xhosa or Zulu I’ve learnt in my model C school in my perfect middle class circumstances? Ja, exactly, so who’s looking stupid now?

To conclude, having a “clear” accent for those who acquired not learnt it, isn’t an achievement. It’s just something you have, like legs. I’m glad if someone’s accent makes them proud but the truth is that anyone born in their position would sound the same. Becoming fluent in another language, on the other hand, is hard work. Dismissing such an effort is being a dick. Judging an accent as inferior is like saying that Queen is a worse band than The Doors because you’re more used to their music. Forgive me all the swearwords, I’m NOT a native speaker, you see, so my vocabulary is rather limited.