Yes. You have an accent. No. It does not matter if you’re English or American or Brasiliense or Paulista. Everybody has an accent and there is no way of not having one. Sign language has accents. An accent is a way of speaking, which in my opinion goes way beyond the pronunciation level. It is the choice of words, of structures, rhythm, intonation, pronunciation, idioms, and, ultimately, deeply connected to your cultural identity. An accent places you as a member of a community of speech. What I mean by this is that there is no such thing as ‘neutral’ accent or ‘standard’ accent. In my opinion, what is commonly named ‘neutral’ or ‘standard’ accent actually stands for ‘imperialistic’ and ‘prejudicial’ and ‘elitist’ accent. I shall expand on that further down this blog entry.
Allow me to share a little of my own personal accent amalgam. I was born in Brasília and raised by a Carioca mother and a Paulista father. My grandparents are, on my mother’s side, from Nordeste, and on my father’s side of the family, from Poland. I dated a Gaúcha woman and socialized with her Gaúcho family for eleven years. I’ve always had friends from all corners of the country due to teachers’ conferences (if you’ve been to one, I’m sure you know what I mean.). I moved to São Paulo and met my girlfriend, who’s Mineira. I think you might see where I am going with this, right? Where do I place my accent? Do I have a Brasiliense accent? A Mineiro one? Gaúcho? Paulista? The way I see it, I have my own accent, due to this myriad of interactions with different speech communities which have most definitely affected and helped me color my accent in the most beautiful colors I could find. And I haven’t even mentioned English in this paragraph.
My accent is not simply the way I pronounce or don’t pronounce the letter T in better. It is so much more. If language is how we see the world, ourselves, and others, accent is our very own font. And it is bound to change and become more intricate as we go through life and allow more people and perspectives of the world to permeate our linguistic membrane. Isn’t it a beautiful thing? I’ve always pictured myself going through this highway and meeting people along the way, who carried paint brushes of their own colors, and that we would splatter each other with the colors from our accents. What an exquisite canvas that would be.
This is why I cringe whenever I see an ‘accent reduction’ course. First things first, reducing an accent gives the reader the impression that accents can, eventually, be eliminated. They cannot. What happens then in such endeavour? Well, the accent trainer is going to try and substitute your own, personal, intricate, beautiful accent for another one. And, alas, most likely an accent of privilege. I heard Megale say once in a talk that language is power. She couldn’t be more right. So the trainee will be trained to speak in a different way because that accent is an accent of privilege (hence the ‘imperialistic’, ‘elitist’, and ‘prejudicial’ adjectives used above). This would try to blotch out your linguistic canvas with colors that are not yours. Actually, they are no one’s.
Let’s look at this in perspective: the trainee wants to learn American accent. Good. American from where? New York? Texas? San Francisco? It is easy to imagine that the ‘American’ English spoken in Texas has some Mexican colors due to their geographical proximity. Do you think trainees often look for accents with Mexican colors? Or are they more likely to look for wealthier, more European, whiter accents? Do you see why this is so problematic? Also, there’s the issue we discussed about our own accents. Even if you are looking for a New Yorker accent, whose accent will you mimic? Because it is expected that each single New Yorker has their own particular accent, right? Accent reduction is the futile endeavour of mimicking a model that doesn't exist.
Whenever I am faced with issues of accent prejudice, nativespeakerism, and ‘standardization’ of accents, I like to remind myself of the highway painter. We have our very own colors and canvases. Wear your accent, your colors, and wear them proud, because they are yours and yours alone.