For 35 years I was a full-time native speaker with a standard accent/dialect. As a resident of the capital of my country, I was granted the natural privilege of speaking the ‘correct’ Portuguese. I remember people making fun or telling jokes of regional accents. It didn’t matter how educated or wealthy you were. If you were born in the south or north of Portugal your accent could place you immediately in a league of comedy. As for foreigners trying to speak Portuguese, prejudice instead of comedy was the league in which they were placed.
As with many privileges, we don’t perceive them until we lose them. It’s been 11 years since I settled here in the United States and my journey as a foreigner has shown me many lessons including disrupting my identity as a “standard/privileged” speaker. I am no longer a language virtuoso and realistically I will never be one here. I’ve had moments I examined in my life because of that. Not being competent to speak the language the way native speakers speak is a bump on one’s self-esteem and it’s normally an obstacle to “belonging” 100%.
A few years ago I considered joining an “accent reduction” course. In the process of searching for the best solution, I learned stuff that helped me realize how important is not having an accent if one wants to belong at least in a social-unconscious level. One study, led by psychologist Katherine Kinzler from Harvard showed that five-year-old children put more stock in accents than race or gender when choosing potential playmates. When kids were given pictures of other kids and asked to choose potential friends based only on facial visualization, gender and race similarities played a big role but when a voice was added to the pictures the children switch their preferences to language/accent similarities instead of gender and race. Many hypotheses can be drawn from this experiment and one has an evolutionary framework. Language bias, from this viewpoint, was just a quick path to shield us from risks and provide critical social grouping information. It was an important feature many thousands of years ago, but it serves no purpose nowadays. I compare this instinct with the evolutionary reason why is it so challenging to avoid sugar in our diets. We are captives of our evolutionary history. And unless with put our neo-cortex in charge, we will never let pass such powerful aspects of our evolutionary heritage. Much progress has happened in terms of gender and racial equality but when it comes to accents there’s still a long way to go. Just do a search on google and find how many villains in cartoon movies were given foreign accents. Progress is now being made in that industry, but it is still acceptable to discriminate an accent.
Knowing basic linguistics might help to reduce language bias. The field of languages is a complex and vast ecosystem. There are over 7000 languages and inside each one many dialects. From a linguistic perspective, there’s no such thing as a standard dialect. Every dialect with its own rules and accents stands by itself at the same height in the atlas of linguistics. So, for example, in American English, there’s either no accent or, everyone has an accent. Foreign accents are a child of a lesser God since frequently they appear with linguistic deficiencies (grammar, vocabulary, etc). And even when grammar and vocabulary are mastered there’s invariably the “monster” phonetics (what we call accent).
Our accents result from a physiological ability and native speakers had the privilege to develop those skills since the beginning of their lives. We combine our vocal cords with our lips, our teeth, our tongues and our lungs to produce all the sounds we need to use in our speech. For example, the English “f” sound is a “voiceless labiodental fricative,” meaning your vocal cords don’t vibrate, it’s pronounced using your lips and teeth, and by forcing air through the gap they make. The Japanese “f” is a “voiceless bilabial fricative” – one component is different. That means it’s pronounced using both your lips, no teeth necessary. So if you never had to use or combine specific sounds it might be that your vocal cords, teeth, lips, tongue, and lungs are not adapted to physically make those sounds in a “correct way”.
Speaking a foreign language is a body workout. When you hear an accent, you are hearing something that is physically produced instead of cognitively. If you play a sport try to imagine performing with your non-dominant side. Now imagine playing with that side all the time realizing that you cannot play with your dominant side. You know what you want to do cognitively but your weak arm or leg doesn’t match your intellectual ability to play the game. That’s what happens when you speak a second language.
So the next time you hear a foreigner trying to speak your native language do this 10-second exercise. First, remember your evolutionary trait to discriminate accents. Don’t feel guilty because that instinct was acquired for a good reason in the past. Just be aware of it, tell yourself that you don’t need it anymore (like that extra donut) and just let it go. Second, recognize the tremendous effort that the person must exert to re-educate his or her vocal cords, lips, teeth, tongue, and lungs, not being a language virtuoso 24/7. Rest assured that we will continue trying hard to enhance our language skills because, in the end, we all just want to belong.