March 2013 Archives

On Accents and Speaking a Foreign Language

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Have you ever felt frustrated when nobody understood you or slightly annoyed when someone made fun of you because of your accent? I have seen that frustration among my international friends. Sometimes I experience it with refugee clients of mine in my current social work internship. And yes, I have been there myself as a foreign student. Not only are we asked to adapt to a different culture and academic system, we have to master our conversing in a foreign language in a way that people understand us. My self-consciousness about my accent and way of speaking got me to the point that I would fear doing presentations in front of the class.

How did I overcome that anxiety? For one, I often asked myself why there should be a subtle emphasis on conforming to one unique way of pronouncing and speaking in a foreign language. Wouldn't it actually be boring if we as international students all spoke the same way in a foreign language? Instead we should embrace our way of speaking because our accent and culture make us who we are. Why should we deny something that is part of us and makes us unique?
To give you a personal example, it was a running gag among my best American friends for some time I that I couldn't pronounce the word squirrel. My friends helped me realize that I shouldn't take the pronunciation matter so seriously and instead take it with a sense of humor. Eventually, I laughed with my friends whenever they were amused about my accent because my pronunciation mishaps made them happy. After all, I was there to learn a new language and making mistakes during the learning process is normal. Moreover, learning and speaking a foreign language should be fun and never a chore.

I also realized that in the end I shouldn't focus so much on my accent, but on the overall message I want to get across in my communication. This important point is best summarized in an essay by Chinua Achebe about African authors writing in a foreign language: "So my answer to the question: Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask: Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker? I should say, I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience." Consequently, always keep in mind that there is diversity in the English language of how you can communicate and express yourself.

Now I am not saying that we as international students shouldn't improve our English proficiency or if we want to work on our public speaking skills, by all means, we should all go ahead and seek out opportunities to do so. I remember an important lesson from a French teacher at my German high school that one of the key parts about learning a new language successfully is the courage to speak and practice it with others in public. We have a great German saying for that: "Uebung macht den Meister (A master arrives where he is at through exercise)."

But if you are still in doubt about yourself and your way of speaking, then please stop for a moment and give yourself a pat on the back. We all need to remind ourselves that we are making an effort in speaking another person's language in order to communicate with them. It says a lot about us that we are putting a lot of work into learning other people's languages and cultures, it reveals that we care deeply about communicating with the people in the host country and that we respect their language and culture. So...never forget this.

This is all from me today. Embrace the opportunity to learn and converse in a new language, make it a fun experience and laugh about your mistakes because they make you human. Also, please do me a favor and check out the following clip, you may or may not have walked in this guy's shoes before. Bis demnaechst und haltet die Ohren steif, my friends.

Dedicated to Dr. J., all of my international friends and all international students

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This page is an archive of entries from March 2013 listed from newest to oldest.

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