Having an accent can result in unintended consequences in a person’s life. Is there anything wrong with having an accent? Is it fair for people to pose popular socially constructed stereotypes based on accents? Hang on with me as I explore this mind boggling topic.

There are all kinds of assumptions that are attached to accents. For instance, a friend of mine told me that she just loves the French accent, because she thinks it’s so sexy. I later realized that Paris is oftentimes referred to as the “city of love.” Hence, her association of the French accent with romance. These accentual assumptions extend from hurtful predispositions to unwarranted credibility.

For most international students in America, the urge to meet people and form relationships may even be fatally affected. During freshmen year, it’s not just the accent, but sometimes it’s a combination of accent and pronunciation. For some of us, it will be the very first year to speak in English almost all of the time. Having spent more than 18 years speaking my native languages and studying (not speaking) British English in high school, mine was “triple trouble.” A combination of bits and pieces of the Queen’s English I had learned and my own Zimbabwean accent posed challenges to being understood when I spoke. Now, it has become a matter of accent. The British version I had learned made my pronunciation different and  made it a challenge to understand the Minnesotan accent.

Many will agree with me that this may be frustrating, both for the non-English speaker and the native English speaker. In some instances, one may realize that someone from a different country or region may say something and because of their accent, you fail to grasp what they are saying. In most cases, the “nice” Minnesotans will just smile and shake their heads in agreement, or the speaker will end the conversation by saying “never mind” after several attempts to repeat the same message.

But, don’t we all have an accent?

Yes, and it carries diverse associations depending on where one is. When I came to America in 2010, I was surprised to realize that even in America, various regions have different accents as well. For instance, the Midwest allegedly has as little of an accent as possible while speaking American English. However I learned that to people outside that region, the dialect sounds exceptionally different as well. Furthermore, in the American south, a “y’all” can imply strong ties to one’s heritage and family. Outside of the south, that same accent has different connotations. I realized people sometimes perceive it as rural or backwards-thinking, which is unfair. A Canadian “eh” is also seen as country and the California lilt comes off as crumbling.

I further learned that in America, a British accent entails authority and intelligence, while in England the specificity of an accent can mean anything from intellect to low-class status.

I have had troubles pronouncing the “errrs”. Simple words like “burger;” which I end up saying as “beggar” simply because my tongue can’t be tricked into to the “errs”.

I had to do something about it. I retreated. The need to be understood prompted me to work on my accent. With careful daily concentration, I reinstated the letter “err” to the words that I encountered. I refrained from calling traffic lights ‘robots” and carefully listened when people spoke.

Regardless of all my efforts,  I still pronounce the word ‘coat” in the same way I say“code,” which is a thing I didn’t notice at all until my native-speaking American girlfriend pointed it out repeatedly. Now, I have to work on twisting my tongue so that these words sound different.

Do people judge others based on accents? In addition to the prejudices people face over skin color, race, sex, clothing and more, accent seems like the last thing we should add to this list. Should we speak in a way that obscures our point of origin, or do we let our natural diction run wild and risk being misunderstood? I embrace my accent with pride, and as long as I can be heard and understood, I consider my accent a tag that distinguishes me and shows my heritage as an African.

An accent can hinder communication. However, unless you are applying for a job as a national news anchor, there’s no problem with a little “foreign” twist, as long as whoever you’re talking to is diligent enough to listen past your voice to the content of your words. We all have an accent, and a voice’s implications exist primarily in the ear of the beholder.

Howard Mukanda

Howard Mukanda is a Sophomore Student from Zimbabwe. He is Double Majoring in Business Management Information Systems and Global Studies. His Involvement with International Students, Peer Mentorship and International Admissions echoes his immense interest in Cultural Diversity. Howard is also intrigued by Global issues concerning Peace, Justice and Democracy.

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