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To Be Or Not To Be An Accent. That Is The Question.
May 15, 2012

What’s in an accent? Accents come in all shapes, sizes and tones.

All countries have accents that are regional. We know that here in the US, because there are southern accents, New England accents, New York accents, etc.

And then there are the accents of immigrants when they speak English.  Again, this is universal. I remember that I was 10-years old when I met my grandfather for the first time in Argentina. He was originally from Poland, and to my surprise, he spoke Spanish with a heavy accent!

I started really thinking about accents because my social media specialist, Rob Whitley (who is awesome by the way) asked me how I feel about the way my name is pronounced. So for example, when he says ‘Brigitta’ on the phone, he said he could say it with a Spanish accent, the way Samantha [Samantha Villegas, my awesome public relations consultant] says it, which is with a soft G. But he said that he often says it with  a regular G sound. He also asked, when or if someone whose native language is English, and they DO make the effort to pronounce my name in a Spanish way, do I care if the ñ is accented? But mainly, he wanted to know whether I appreciate it more if someone makes this effort altogether when the language that is going to be spoken during that conversation is English for example.

Rob’s question made me realize that this was a very important topic, and one that has hit close to home for me my whole life. First  because I grew up in a household of immigrants with accents, also because I married an immigrant with an accent, and  because I have a difficult name to pronounce, no matter what country you’re originally from.

The quick answer to Rob’s question about my name is that I prefer for people to pronounce  it with a Spanish accent (soft G). But I don’t create perceptions or assumptions about people if they don’t pronounce it correctly the first time. Maybe this comes from growing up in the 60’s and 70’s where there was not much diversity in Alexandria, Virginia, where I grew up. EVERYONE had trouble saying my name, or even attempting to pronounce it. I was constantly having to pronounce my name, and I admit that at that time I pronounced it with a more “American” accent – so as not to complicate matters. Today, I pronounce my name with a Spanish accent for many reasons – including the diversity of names that I hear around me.

My parents came to the United States from their respective countries, Argentina and Ecuador, as adults. They spoke English with very heavy accents. Then I married someone from Central America who, as my parents did, came to this country as an adult, and speaks English with an accent. I have been surrounded by accents my whole life!

Research shows that when someone leaves their native country as an 11-year old or younger, they will be able to learn the language of their new country without much of an accent ( Age Vs. Learning A Second Language Study).  My own experience with that are two cousins that came from Ecuador to live with my family when one of them was 13-years old and the other was 10-years old. The 13-year old ended up speaking fluent English with a slight accent and the 10-year old ended up speaking fluent English with no Spanish accent at all.

I was born in Maryland and grew up in Virginia so I don’t speak English with an accent, except for a slight “Northern Virginia” accent. Is there really such a thing as a “Northern Virginia” accent though? Well, when I was a teenager I visited family in Michigan, and the native Michiganders (and yes, they have  accents) asked me if I was a southern belle because they could distinguish somewhat of  a southern accent.  I had never considered myself a “southerner,” but there you go – someone heard that accent in my speech! Now, there are some people that suspect I’m from another country only because they say that I enunciate words clearly. That person must have a very fine ear…

Rob then asked me: “Overall, when you  hear a person whose native language is English, speak Spanish fluently in sort of an “English” way versus trying to speak it as if Spanish was their native language, what do you think?”

Another great question. I  am thrilled when people learn more than one language and have the courage to try to speak the second or third language without being shy about making mistakes. So I applaud anyone that does their best to converse in their new language, whether or not they are speaking it with the “correct” accent.

What about Siri on the iPhone. She doesn’t  understand people that speak to her with an accent. How do you teach a “machine” to understand accents? There are accents everywhere, right? That’s a challenge for Apple, but if any company were able to tackle it, Apple could, and I believe they will.

At least Siri has an excuse for her issue. She’s a machine that hasn’t yet been programmed. But how do we program people to understand accents, or at least have the patience for those with them? How do we teach tolerance throughout the world to people who are listening to others trying their best to speak their new language: can we learn to be patient with the person speaking our language with a heavy accent, and making grammatical mistakes? Can we agree that speaking louder to the person learning the new language is not going to help? Isn’t there a better way than yelling out, “What? I don’t understand you.” Yes, it’s frustrating, but instead of impatience, or annoyance, I think a drop of tolerance and patience will go a long way for a person learning their second or third language and it will bridge together our ever-growing melting pot of cultures.

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