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Foreign Accents and Their Perception

With the contemporary spread of English––particularly the American variety––as a world-wide lingua franca has come the inevitable concomitant of foreigners speaking the language with an accent, including immigrants to Anglophone areas. Depending on linguistic aptitude and the stage in life when English is acquired as a non-native language, the degree to which a speaker’s accent is perceived as foreign by native Americans, Britons, Canadians et al. will vary. This physiognomic feature of speech can have a significant influence on interpersonal relations. Ultimately, assuming that a foreign accent is not so thick as to be impenetrable by native and non-native interlocutors, it becomes just another feature of a person’s profile, an identifying mark no different from someone’s hair style or the color of their eyes.

The greater the degree of grammatical mastery of a foreign language by a non-native speaker, the less of an impediment to fluid communication is that person’s accent. In some relatively rare cases, a foreign language is mastered to such a degree of fluency that it passes for native and cannot be distinguished from the norm in a given speech community. Here is an interesting and instructive instance.

My late wife Marianne Shapiro (née Goldner) was born in Budapest and immigrated to New York at the age of three speaking her native Hungarian (which she retained into adulthood) and not a word of English. She quickly acquired an accentless American English, spoken with impeccable diction and exemplary mellifluousness. (By contrast, her younger brother, who was born in New York, grew up speaking the local dialect, i. e., with r-lessness and all the appropriate vowels.) As a teenager she learned French, then Italian in school, both of which she spoke without the trace of an accent, to the point that in France and Italy (where she had never lived for more than a year) she was routinely taken for a native speaker. Curiously, given the Italian linguistic situation, in which every speaker retains some trace of a regional standard, the only thing that attracted any attention was precisely this absence of a local substratum, occasionally eliciting the comment, “You speak like a radio announcer,” following on the query, “Where are you from?”

In France, where the natives are not noted for issuing encomia of foreigners’ French, she would routinely receive the bouquet, uttered with unmasked admiration, “You speak like a Parisian!”

Another interesting case of perception of foreigners’ speech is the one that used to obtain before Japanese came to be spoken by a wider circle of foreigners, as it is today among non-native business people resident in Japan. In the old days, it was not uncommon for a Japanese to resort to baby talk or some other distortion of normal adult speech when addressing or answering a foreigner––even (nota bene) when what came out of the mouth of the foreigner was flawless standard Japanese. The perceptual disharmony created between a white person’s physiognomy and the perfectly native simulacra of their Japanese interlocutors’ supposedly unique tongue was evidently so disorienting to the latter as to occasion this bizarre specimen of linguistic behavior.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

[Addendum: My brother Jacob, a fluent speaker of Japanese, tells me a story that somewhat mimics the situation described above, to wit: one day after the war, when he was driving around and lost his way in the Japanese countryside, he stopped a farmer to ask directions, but the farmer waved him off, saying, “I don’t understand English,” even though Jacob’s question had been framed in standard Japanese.]

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