Why You Should Try to Have a Native English Accent
I’m an Italian native speaker and English is my second language, but most people wouldn’t say that I have an Italian accent when I speak English, not a very strong one at least. Did I work hard to get to this level of pronunciation?
I never studied any pronunciation rules as a learner of English. I actually only started studying rules when I became a teacher. Neither did I ever do boring ‘listen and repeat’ exercises. Never ever.
So how come I don’t sound Italian very much?
I think the fact that I’m a good imitator helped me a lot. I’m just good at doing impersonations of other people so I can easily imitate their sounds and the way they speak. You might call this a gift, a talent, a superpower, a gene – whatever! It just comes naturally to me.
My dad is the same. Ask him to speak with an accent from Milan, Rome, Naples, Venice, Palermo, or even a foreign one, and he’ll do it perfectly. And it’s so funny too. Until he overdoes it and I walk away.
The last thing I wanted when I was in the process of developing my English was to have an Italian accent. Why? I had five main reasons for this, but I now think that three of these were not valid at all, while two were good ones.
Let’s see if you can guess which are which.
5 reasons why I didn’t want to sound Italian
1. Fear of being judged: In Italy we generally make fun of Italians who speak English with a strong accent. I didn’t want to speak like those people and be made fun of. I used to laugh at those people too (politicians, my teachers, friends).
2. Identity: I wanted to integrate and connect with the country I was living in. When I was in London, I wanted to sound British. Then I moved to Australia and wanted an Australian accent. When I lived in New Zealand I wanted a Kiwi accent.
3. Job aspirations: I wanted to become a teacher of English, so I thought that I had to have a native accent.
4. Personal taste: I just loved the sounds of native accents, especially the sounds of the Kiwi one, which has recently been declared the sexiest accent in the world, but also the third most annoying one!
5. Correctness: Learning a language involves learning its grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. I wanted perfect grammar, perfect vocabulary and perfect pronunciation.
Pause for a moment and have a guess. Which of these reasons do you think are valid ones to sound like a native English speaker?
Bad reasons to sound like a native
I’d say number 2 and number 4 are good ones while number 1, 3 and 5 are not and here is why.
Reason 1 (fear of judgement): Life is already hard as it is and fearing other people’s judgment will make it even harder. So don’t waste your time worring about what others think of you. This is something I should remind myself every day too, so I asked my partner Aloha to make the drawing you see below, which is on the wall of my study room.
Reason 3 (job aspirations): Being a good teacher doesn’t mean speaking English with a British or Australian accent. I’ve met great teachers who have their own accents and still do an amazing job. Choose your teachers according to their experience, qualifications, and personalities, not just because they were born in Australia.
Reason 5 (correctness): What does it mean to have perfect pronunciation? I used to associate ‘perfect pronunciation’ with ‘native speakers’ pronunciation’. But I changed my mind and now see English as a global language, so I associate ‘perfect pronunciation’ with ‘understandable pronunciation’.
You might already know that there are many more non-native speakers of English in the world than native ones. So think about it, if English is your second language, if you have your own accent and if people don’t need to keep asking you to repeat when you speak to them, why bother with a native accent?
Good reasons to sound like a native
However, Reasons 2 and 5 I think are good ones.
Reason 2 (Identity): Good reason because ‘language belongs to a person’s whole social being; it is part of one’s identity and is used to convey this identity to other people. The learning of a foreign language involves far more than simply learning skills, or a system of rules, or a grammar; it involves an alteration in self-image.’ (Williams, 1994:77)
In other words, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to develop a ‘second identity’ by changing your accent to become a member of a community.
Reason 5 (personal taste): Is anybody going to get hurt if you like how native speakers sound and you want to speak like them? No. So go ahead, get rid of your accent and speak like them.
These were my reasons why I wanted (and still want!) to sound like a native speaker. Looking back, however, I’ve realised that some of these were kind of stupid because they really had nothing to do with how the world works and how English is used around the world.
Also, keep in mind that if you’re sharing your stories with an international community and your listeners are for the most part non-native English speakers, speaking with a native accent might even have the opposite effect: people won’t understand you!
One of my Italian friends once shared his frustration with native English speakers at work. He said, ‘When I’m in a meeting with Germans, French and other non-native English speaker colleagues, we can perfectly understand each other. But when Mark from the UK joins the conversation, we can’t understand anything!’
And again, when I was working in London I was speaking with a guy from the UK, a native speaker. This is what I said to him, ‘You’re so lucky because English is your first language. You can travel the world, go to any place and people will always understand you.’
This is what he replied, ‘You’re actually luckier than me because most people around the world don’t understand my British accent!’
So, should you try to have a native accent? My answer is that it really all depends on what you want and who you are sharing your stories with, and I hope this post has given you some clarity on whether or not you should work hard at it.