Does having an accent hold you back?
In today’s world, well before the pandemic, it is so easy to travel and move around. Whether you just want to visit a certain country or try your luck and build a life abroad.
I took this opportunity and moved to the UK. Not only to learn to speak English properly, but also to create opportunities for myself to build the life I want.
After being in the UK for a couple of months, settling in, working and enjoying my life, I decided to grab a cup of coffee and make the best out of a beautiful sunny day.
The sun in my heart was shining through me, as I smiled and winked at the sun in the sky.
I walked out of my house filled with confidence I brought with me from Slovakia (where I'm from). I was smiling at people walking around the beautiful town in the UK where I moved to. I spotted the coffee shop and I was looking forward to a tasty cup of coffee and maybe a piece of cake. With confidence and determination, I stepped into the coffee shop.
And that was the end of my confidence that day. Or has it actually started there and then?
Let’s continue my story to find out.
I looked at the board above the barista and started to decide what to order. I could smell the coffee and I could taste the cake in my mouth! What a treat on such a beautiful day. I felt on top of the world.
The barista was amazing and pleasant, probably preparing the 97th coffee of the day, and talked to the 150th person. I imagined that the barista had a work meeting about how to prepare the ‘coffee of the day’, and how to provide the best customer service. How amazing, right?
It was my turn to order. I knew exactly what I wanted! I opened my mouth and ordered. The words and sentences that came out of my mouth were in English, mixed with Slovakian, Hungarian, Czech, German and Spanish accents. (Yes, that's how many languages I speak).
Can you guess what happened next? If English is not your first language, you know exactly what I’m about to tell you…..
Looking back at that moment, it wasn’t that bad. But at that moment, I felt small, sad and hurt. My confidence disappeared in an instant.
The barista couldn't understand my order…. Not the first time, the second time … or the third time…… She tried to be patient and understanding…. But I felt terrible.
WHEN YOU SACRIFICE YOUR PERSONALITY TO FIT THE CULTURE YOU LIVE IN
Individuals with non-standard accents are constantly faced with negative perceptions.
When I wanted to make myself understandable and clear, I tried to describe the word with synonyms or other fun ways - just to get it correctly. I’m quite chatty and bubbly so expressing myself correctly is a part of my personality.
Although it was ‘fun’ to express myself with all kinds of words, gestures (and sometimes using hands and feet as well), deep in my heart I was disappointed, tired, sad and - I was not happy at all. I did everything I could to mimic the local accent, I took over their hand gestures and facial expressions. I did everything I could to fit in with the locals, I didn’t want to be an ‘immigrant that nobody understands’.
I have lost my personality for a few years, I hid my true self because I was scared of what others would think of me.
All this time, one question kept popping in my head: “Are we expected to speak English perfectly, fluently and with the local accent?”
I dove into this and did my own research about this topic. And what did I find?
“It is biologically impossible for foreign speakers to do. This is because the most critical period of brain development happens at 6 months old. This is when your brain begins to recognize phonemes, which are the distinct units of sounds in a specific language that separate one word from the other.”
“According to the Critical Period Hypothesis, during the critical period, a new skill or trait can be formed given the proper life experience. If the necessary experience is not available during this time, it becomes much harder, less successful or even impossible to acquire the skill or trait after the window of opportunity closes.” - Critical Period In Brain Development and Childhood Learning (parentingforbrain.com)”
That’s why it’s so hard for native speakers to lose or to change their accents.
I kept coming back to this coffee shop, despite my previous negative experience. I kept coming and ordering the same thing until I got my order without any questions or comments. Maybe they just remembered me and my order…... or because my English improved .. or maybe because I was their favorite customer.
Whatever it was, I’m glad I persevered. The employees working at this coffee shop were welcoming, patient, friendly and encouraging. They made me feel welcome and accepted into the ‘culture of English coffee shops’. Their attitude and my willingness to keep moving forward have boosted my confidence to carry on and improve my English skills.
I embraced each and every step of my journey. I embraced every high and low point. I kept mispronouncing words, using wrong grammar, but I kept learning.
However, it was made painfully obvious to me, that some people think of ‘non native English accents’ speakers as:
- less intelligent
- less educated
- having poor language skills
- unpleasant to listen to
I don’t believe I fit into any of these boxes. I guess that’s because I’m kind of used to having an accent, even in my own country. Since I could talk (and remember), I was always judged by my accent. I grew up near Hungarian borders (hence I speak the Hungarian language fluently) and whenever we visited our capital city Bratislava, we were the weirdos with Hungarian accents.
On the other hand, when we visited Hungary, they knew straight away that we were ‘the weirdos from Slovakia’ - because of our Slovakian accent of course.
Your accent is beautiful
So is it possible to become ‘pleasant to listen to’?
Through hard work, persistence and practice. You can remove your unique accent, but why would you?
Your accent is the only thing you still have from your country. Be proud of it. It makes you YOU. When you speak with an accent, it means you are bilingual, or trilingual. How amazing is that?
Nobody should ever be embarrassed about their accent. Be proud of your progress and as a multilingual person be proud of our ability to speak multiple different languages. Celebrate your differences, your uniqueness. Be you, be true and authentic to yourself.
If somebody has a ‘problem’ with your accent - it says more about them than you!
I know it is easier said than done. There are days where I want to buy a loaf of bread or a light bulb without any questions or comments about my accent……. But I love and embrace my accent and so should you!
Speaking the language of a non-English country
Have you ever visited any non-English speaking country before?
More than 90 percent of the locals in these countries are not expecting you to speak their language, much less do it fluently.
I am sure that if you visit my country and say one word in our language - everyone will be so impressed and cheer you on! Maybe because we understand how hard it is to speak our language.
Speaking of the Slovakian language - did you know that the Slovakian language is in the top 5 of the most difficult languages to learn? Just saying!
Let’s just get back to my coffee place, where I wondered if I could learn about the UK’s culture, it’s people and all - I believed this coffee place would be the best place to learn. I would sit down at a table, by myself, and just take everything in.
Recently I’ve just heard my friends talking about people who are going to coffee shops alone, sitting there with a cuppa coffee or tea. AND HOW WEIRD THEY ARE!
When I heard that - I wanted to stand up and say out loud - I’M ONE OF THEM, I AM WEIRD!
Maybe I was weird. I only know that when I was sitting in that coffee shop, I didn't feel weird, I felt utterly alone.
I felt as the most lonely person on this earth, misunderstood, rejected. At least it felt to me like that.
I was sitting in the middle of this country trying to make myself ‘at- home’, in this city, in the middle of the coffee shop! All my family is back home in Slovakia, my friends scattered all around the world, far away from me.
Yes, I did have a choice to move back home, you are right to think that. But I decided to stay and experience the life of a person with an accent trying to change the world. Learn more languages and different cultures. I decided to experience the world as the TRUE ME. Hear my accent, hear my roar!
Your accent is a part of you
“Our similarities bring us together, and our differences allow us to be fascinated about each other.” Tom Robbin
How boring would the world be if we all spoke the same language with the same accent?
I want you to give yourself permission to be YOU, to speak with an accent you brought from home freely and without guilt or shame! Keep writing your story. I can’t wait to read it!
My story continues….. …. The sun in my heart was shining through me, as I smiled and winked at the sun in the sky.
I walked out of my house filled with confidence I brought with me from Slovakia - and said to myself: “it doesn’t matter that you have an accent and your language is not perfect. You be YOU!
I was smiling at people walking around the beautiful town in the UK where I moved to. I spotted the coffee shop and I was looking forward to a tasty cup of coffee and maybe a piece of cake. With confidence and determination I stepped into the coffee shop…..
Celebrate your accent, embrace it! Stay true to yourself, be YOU without any guilt.
Because at the end of the day, that is what makes you UNIQUE.
And you are a masterpiece!
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