Kayero Sanda | 17.12.2018
People are now hearing more foreign accents around the world than at any time in human history, as more people migrate and move around than ever before. But when a Syrian refugee, an Indian exchange student or a research fellow from Burkina Faso all arrive in a foreign country, the last thing they are worried about at first is the accents in which they speak. That, however, only lasts for a little while until it becomes something they must contend with.
Truth be told, although not with the same intensity, foreign accents appear to be an issue for both native speakers and non-native speakers of a particular language. For the non-native speaker, it is the pain or fear of being ridiculed, misunderstood or discriminated. For the native speaker, it is the fear of misunderstanding, or in some cases, the threat of being displaced from one's homeland by the mere presence of an accent that we are not used to.
The speech of the non-native is likely unnecessarily longer, contains a lot of 'umms' and 'huhs' and has stresses and intonation wrongly positioned. This does lead to negative stereotypes that assert that non-native speakers of a language are unintelligent, less educated or less privileged. These negative stereotypes ironically is not attached to every foreign speaker. For example, an American accent of the German language is clearly not evaluated the same as a Sri Lankan, while also someone with a French accent is more likely seen as well educated. But if you are from the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent or Africa, stereotypes of this nature might well be enforced on you. You might as well be lumped together with the community of speakers of the Kiezdeutsch dialect, who, based on these stereotypes, are assumed to be young, uneducated criminals who have been to prison or on their way to become convicts sooner or later.
Often times, we assume that since non-native speakers are likely to be less proficient, we rely on our own understanding and expectations of what they are saying rather than what they are actually saying. This is as well hard for the well-meaning native speakers who just really want to understand what you are saying. Sometimes, it is not an act of bias or prejudice. They are just as helpless as you are.
When I first came to Germany, I was so eager to learn the language that my excitement really helped me to learn pretty fast. Even though I was far from proficient on a native level, I was proud of what I was achieving. Whenever I was made to feel bad for making tons of mistakes or for having a nasty accent, my coping mechanism was to remind myself I had been in the country for less than a year and that I speak four languages. If you do not speak at least four languages, please don't talk trash to me. It is also interesting to note that many who would judge you for having an accent are the same ones who cannot speak any other language or even theirs flawlessly.
Language is dynamic and the new reality we are faced with is our languages are changing. Whether we accept it or not, we are borrowing from other cultures every day and the influences are shown in how we speak. The English language is said to be a Germanic language, but a lot of its words are of Latin origin. Alcohol is Arabic, Cosmos is Greek, Banana is Wolof and we still have not found an alternative to the Japanese Sushi.
So, if you are like me, do not let the fear of your own accent scare you away from speaking. It only means that you have come a long way, that you have worked really hard to learn a new language, that you are smart and open-minded. It means you speak one more language than the next man. All we need is to keep speaking; the only true way to perfect and master any language.
About the author
Kayero is a 29-year-old Nigerian who has been living in Hannover since 2014.
He does a lot of creative writing especially poetry. He worked as editor and columnist for a magazine and also wrote scripts for TV productions.