Bringing American culture closer to new immigrants
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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