When your accent gets in your way

Could you repeat that, please?

‘Come again?’ may be a phrase very familiar to you if you speak English with an accent. That isn’t just dispiriting, but it can also affect your career prospects. ‘People would just nod when I asked an open question.’
Text by Yelena Kilina / Animation by René Lapoutre
26 January om 16:11 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 27 January 2021
om 10:13 uur.
January 26 at 16:11 PM.
Last modified on January 27, 2021
at 10:13 AM.
Devina Putri (…)

Devina Putri’s classmates hardly ever heard her talk in class. She had graduated from a public school in Indonesia, and her English was still ‘a little rough’, the international business student says. Being nervous about her speaking skills only made it worse. ’I was scared to speak up, because people always asked me to repeat what I was saying.’

Even during breaks, she stayed silent. It wasn’t that she was afraid her classmates would judge or mock her, but she had noticed some of them struggled to understand her. ‘They would just nod when I asked an open question, and I knew they didn’t get what I was saying.’ 

Lingua franca

Anxiety about their command of English or their accent can undermine students’ confidence and discourage them from expressing their ideas in class or from socialising with their peers after hours. As soon as they utter a word, after all, their accent will be revealed. ‘One’s accent is extremely prominent and difficult to control’, says linguistics professor Marije Michel, chair of language learning at the European languages and cultures department.

I was scared to speak up, because people always asked me to repeat myself

Since English has become the world’s lingua franca, native speakers are automatically at an advantage, she notes. Those for whom it is a second language may be seen as less competent if they have an accent. Nevertheless, she says, ‘linguists are currently questioning whether it’s desirable that everybody should aim to sound like a native speaker. In the end, it is a form of discrimination.’ 

People’s chances are affected just because they weren’t born into an English-speaking family, ‘but an accent is only one aspect of proficiency and it doesn’t make someone more or less competent’, Michel says. ‘Some people have excellent language skills, but never lose their accent, which I see as exciting diversity in the many forms of global English.’

Pronunciation homework

It can be challenging to demonstrate your competence if you have an accent, though. When Edison Salazar from Ecuador, who’s doing a PhD in theoretical chemistry, talks to his supervisor, he reformulates some of his phrases to make himself more understandable. ‘Sometimes I pronounce words in a Spanish way’, he explains. Since the English language has three times as many vowels as Spanish, Salazar has yet to master certain vowel sounds. 

Edison Salazar (…)

He is always working on perfecting his pronunciation, though. ‘After hearing how my supervisor pronounced certain words, I realised, so that’s how you say that’, he says, laughing. 

When he has a presentation, Salazar writes down every single word he is going to say, ‘even the jokes’. Then he repeats them two or three times. If he doesn’t do his pronunciation homework, it will be ‘terrible’, he says. ‘If I were a native speaker, it would have been easier to express myself spontaneously and to pronounce everything correctly.’

Devina, too, puts in extra time to write down and rehearse speeches. ‘I read my script out loud and then do research on how to pronounce difficult words, like ‘hierarchical’, she says.

Realistic goal

But however much work they put in, they’ll never be a native speaker, says Karin Brummelman, speech therapist and teacher of Dutch for non-native speakers at the UG Language Centre.  ‘When you are over fifteen years old, getting rid of your accent in a foreign language is, in most cases, an unrealistic goal.’ Your brain just isn’t able to recognise the sound nuances anymore that are needed for that particular language.

I read my script out loud and then do research on pronunciation

Be it word stress or the melody of sentences, she explains, getting rid of your accent is more complicated than changing the movements of your tongue. It takes months to train your brain to automatically use one out of many different accent nuances.

What is a realistic goal is to look at intelligibility and communication, she says. ‘When you focus on intelligible speech, it is possible to address the main issue of your pronunciation, so people understand you better.’ But an accent is in itself not a sign of poor language skills, the speech therapist stresses. 

Native speakers

And even native English speakers aren’t always perfectly understood by everyone. ‘Oh, your Irish accent’, Seán Byrne’s friends would say, while jokingly rolling their eyes. The chemical engineering student had to learn to pronounce every syllable and speak slowly to be understood in Groningen. ‘It’s particularly difficult when you’re in a lab, because you need to get your idea across quickly and then you speed up automatically.’

Sean Byrne (…)

He doesn’t find that demotivating, though. Seán is used to people asking him to repeat himself over and over again. ‘It happens so often, so it’s like water off a duck’s back, you just say it again.’ Back in his home country, it’s normal to have an accent, he says. ‘Ireland is an anomaly when it comes to accents, because they differ from town to town.’

Period of adjustment

If you’re not used to hearing different accents, it can be a struggle to understand other people, as Raphaël Crosa-Rossa found when he came to Groningen from France to do his PhD at the Van Swinderen Institute for Particle Physics and Gravity (VSI). 

Getting rid of your accent in a foreign language is an unrealistic goal

When he was doing his first atomic calculations, he needed someone to explain how to change the parameters of the basic set. A Chinese colleague scheduled a meeting for an hour, but for the first twenty minutes, ‘I had to keep asking her to repeat herself’, he says. ‘To be sure that I had understood what she said, I rephrased and checked all the points.’ By the end of the hour, he had adjusted and it was easy for him to understand her. 

He went through this process with other colleagues as well. But if it hadn’t been essential, Crosa-Rossa says, he would have avoided asking them to repeat themselves over and over again. ‘You don’t want to offend or to be rude.’ 

On the other hand, he doesn’t want to ‘not talk to interesting people’, he says. To deal with the issue, Crosa-Rossa joined an English conversation workshop for academics to improve his understanding of different accents. ‘It’s too early to see results, but trying to communicate always brings something.’

Okay to make mistakes

Salazar still remembers his first months as a master student, when he would avoid talking to people as much as possible. ‘I felt embarrassed when people had to guess what I meant’, he recalls. But then someone stressed that his classmates are his friends and that it’s okay to make mistakes. That helped him to focus on improving his pronunciation, he says, by watching movies and repeating the sounds. 

Devina, who’s now in her second year at the UG, goes to a friend’s house whenever she has an important online meeting. ‘I’m scared to talk to other people on video when I’m alone’, she says. Fortunately, ‘my classmates turned out to be very understanding whenever I freeze in class because I’m nervous’. 

In order to overcome her fear, Devina has taken the lead in building an alumni network for the Indonesian student association. ‘As deputy head of an external division, I have to present the project to the staff of the UG, which requires a lot of talking’, she says. ‘And it’s going really well.’