VOICES | Do you have an accent?

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If you are like me, with deep roots in Africa, you probably have heard Americans say you have an accent. You might feel that having an accent is not a good thing. Many new immigrants in America are embarrassed about their foreign accents and struggle to learn to speak like Americans. I met a Somali youth in Faribault, Minnesota, who felt that way. I think all this is rather unfortunate. I teach English at college level in America. With apologies to no one, I speak English with my distinctive Tanzanian accent.

An accent is an intrinsic aspect of spoken language. Nobody can say a word, let alone speak a language, without an accent. Basically, an accent is one’s distinctive way of speaking. Though an accent is an individual characteristic, it is also a collective one. Despite their individual differences, people from a given country or region tend to speak with a recognizable accent. I can tell a South African from a Nigerian, or an American from an Indian, based on the way they speak English. Those who know Americans say that Texans, for example, have their own accent, so do Californians, and Americans from other regions.

The accent we grew up with sounds normal to us. We might not even notice it. That we notice the accents of foreigners doesn’t mean that they alone have accents. American English sounds normal to Americans, but it is not a universal norm. English is an international language, with different varieties. With the world getting increasingly interconnected, people who ignore those varieties do so at their own peril, just as those who think they don’t need other languages. Our best option is to learn to hear and understand as many varieties and accents as possible.

Unfortunately, most people have not thought about the issue in this way. Immigrants who struggle to change their accents in order to “fit in” should think about this, so should those who complain about immigrants who speak with foreign accents. Why should someone with a proper Nigerian or Ugandan accent be pressured to speak like an American? Why should someone with a proper Jamaican or British accent be pressured to speak like an American? In Africa, no one asks foreigners to speak English like Africans: the British speak with their own accent; so do the Indians, the Australians and others. That, I think, is the way to go.

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Joseph L. Mbele, who teaches in the English Department at St. Olaf College, is the author of the book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, available online at http://www.lulu.com/content/105001 or by sending an email to info@africonexion.com

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