America For Beginners

Bringing American culture closer to new immigrants

The Curse of a Foreign Accent

Having an accent has always been an issue for non-native speakers. That’s the detail that gives you away even if you are fluent and flawless in terms of grammar and vocabulary. No wonder that a foreign accent is a major challenge in the process of successful integration.

There is probably no foreign accent America hasn’t heard. You would think it made people used to speech diversity and, therefore, tolerant. The society, however, is ambivalent about it.  On the one hand, nobody minds an accent as long as it is understandable and not super annoying. On the other hand, the way a non-native speaker is perceived is dramatically different from the perception of a native speaker.

Robin Jenks Vanderlip, a Pennsylvania native, has suffered a head injury four years ago that resulted in Foreign Accent Syndrome. Vanderlip’s speech sounds like a Russian accent.

Brigid Schulte wrote about the case for Washington Post:

The syndrome was first described by a neurologist in the closing days of World War II. A Norwegian woman hit in the head by shrapnel fell into a coma and woke up speaking with a German accent. Fellow Norwegians ostracized her as a result, according to the medical literature.

Fewer than 60 cases have since been reported worldwide. Puzzled doctors have studied a Louisiana woman who, after a brain injury, suddenly began speaking with a Cajun dialect; a woman from the Newcastle region of England who speaks like a Jamaican; and a Boston man who developed what sounded like a Scottish burr. There are Americans who have developed British-sounding accents, Britons who sound French, a Japanese stroke patient with a Korean accent, and a Spanish-speaker who acquired a thick Hungarian accent.

Those cases seem more mysterious than they actually are and can be medically explained. Generally speaking, it is not about a particular accent but rather about a particular sound or an aspect of a supposed accent.

For example, damage to the brain might result in difficulty pronouncing the letter ‘r’ at the end of words, forcing a rhotic speaker to use a non-rhotic accent, even if they have never spoken with one. In the U.S., non-rhoticity is a particularly notable feature of a Boston accent, thus the person might seem to speak with a Boston accent to the casual listener. However, many of the other features of a Boston accent may be wholly missing. Wikipedia

So, how do you live with a foreign accent syndrome? Being the same person with changed pronunciation is a big psychological challenge. The most painful side of it is that even if you remain your old self, people are going to view you differently. Just like they view foreigners. Now who wants to feel foreign in their own homeland?

“When I sound different, people think that I’m different,” she said. “To this day, my daughter is nervous about me going on field trips or working in the classroom, because she’s a little embarrassed about how I sound.” Vanderlip, who is studying brain-injury education George Washington University, said the incredulous looks she gets when she explains that she’s a native-born American can get wearing.” , writes Brigid Schulte.

The truth is ugly. Turns out the degree of acceptance pretty much depends on the way you sound. A last year research by the University of Chicago shows that native English speakers perceive those with a foreign accent as being less trustworthy.

Because an accent makes a person harder to understand, listeners are less likely to find what the person says as truthful, researchers found. The problem of credibility increases with the severity of the accent.

People suffering from a foreign accent syndrome have to cope with less credibility level from their fellow citizens. Even in America, country supposedly tolerant to cultural diversity. No wonder, many of those people become really self-conscious, insecure and, like Vanderlip, prefer to spend as much time as possible abroad. Anywhere, so that they don’t have to prove their origin and true identity on a daily basis.

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America For Beginners Blog by Anna Kudryashova is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

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6 comments on “The Curse of a Foreign Accent

  1. gfsimons
    July 22, 2011

    This is an interesting and treating topic. Much more could be said about the classification of accents as they are listened to in various countries. For example, as I was growing up in the United States, it seemed as if each accent had its own evaluation: to have a British accent, at least an Oxford one, was seen as superior, intelligent, and upper-class; to have a French accent was seen as charming and sexy; middle and Eastern European accents were generally graded as working class, along with Italian. Blacks and Hispanics, of course, were placed on the bottom rung, as they are today. Regional accents also play a part, for example, southern accents being judged as less intelligent by many people in the rest of the country. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy does us get on this, letting people react to: “Mah name’s Bubba, n I’all gonna be yo brain surgeon t’day.”

    • Anne Egros
      July 22, 2011

      Very true, there is a discrimination and a value linked to a particular accent. I am French but for two decades I have been working and living abroad, mainly USA and Japan, so people always ask me where I come from as I don’t have a typical French accent. I never suffered of my accent and as you said, people find it is charming !

  2. Yue Huang
    August 2, 2011

    Hey Anna! I discovered your blog because I’m interning with John Wilpers this summer and I found this article particularly interesting because I’m from China and have practically no accent. Or rather I have a thick American accent that I’m not sure where I picked up. Whenever I tell people that I’m from China, they ask me “where do you live in the states though? I know you are ORIGINALLY from China.” But I AM from China and still live there! I’m just generally good with accents (I have a pretty good Spanish accent, which fools people too). But sometimes I almost wish I had a slight accent, because that’s part of your identity, right?

    Yue

  3. gfsimons
    August 2, 2011

    Thanks for this, Yue,

    I have been impressed by a number of my native Chinese acquaintances living in China who speak ‘merican virtually without an accent. One reason given to me was that tonal recognition needed to speak Chinese is also an advantageous element here. Apparently a person brought up in a Chinese language is nine times more likely to have what musicians call perfect pitch than a US native.

    I tend to learn and speak languages with minimal telltale accent, but I attribute this to being brought up in the US Midwest immigrant “melting pot” where a different language was spoken on almost every city block! I didn’t learn the languages, but as children we would imitate the “funny” neighbors speech. Not a polite thing to do, but perhaps in the end it was educational since I was able to imitate sounds in Russian, French and German that seemed to be difficult for most people. Maybe in my next incarnation I will learn Chinese and Arabic!

    By the way, a lot of what we tend to believe about identity is currently under fire. Here is a link to a book review on the subject of cultural identity that I recently completed: http://www.diversophy.com/gsi/reviews/illuscultidentity.pdf

    George

  4. Gail Clark
    August 12, 2011

    My head injury happened almost two months ago. I had never heard of Foreign Accent Syndrome until a few days ago. A friend told me she had been searching online for information about head injury and an accent like the one i have had since the day after my accident. It has changed some since that day, it went from being almost impossible to talk, to speaking with a strong accent within days.Time of day and stress levels seem to affect it greatly, so does the level of pain that I am having.
    It is very hard for me to believe that this is happening to me. It is hard enough to handle around friends and family, out in pubic it is even harder. When loved ones tease me and we laugh about the way I sound, it makes it a little more bearable.
    The nightmare part of it is the way I have been treated and talked to by the people I have had to deal with connected in any way with my employer’s worker’s comp., then disability. They say there is nothing wrong with me and have tried to make me feel like a fraud. I was told I was not allowed further medical care until they completed their “investigation”. Weeks later, I was stunned when I was told I was not eligible,even though I was hit by a car at work. The good side of it was being able to finally be seen by a reputable Neurologist that my family Dr. referred me to. I still feel very lost, it is impossible to imagine what it is like to not recognize the voice that is coming from my own mouth.
    I know I will get through this somehow, I do not feel quite as alone with this as I did before reading of others dealing with this. The exhaustion, memory loss, pain and other things that are happening, I hope with all my heart will improve with time.

  5. America For Beginners
    August 16, 2011

    Thank you, Gail. I’m sorry that you have to go through this. I do believe, however, that things will get better. Especially with your family and friends support. The speech problem you’re having is something you have to deal with, but it doesn’t define you and it doesn’t make you any less interesting as a person. I wish you all the best!

    Anna

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