Reflecting on our penchant for acquiring foreign accents
One of my all time favourite period movies of all time is “My Fair Lady”.
Set in London in 1912, the film tells the story of Professor Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor who attempts to teach a young flower sales girl, Eliza Doolittle, how to speak proper English. Professor Higgins believed that one’s accent and vocal tone were instrumental in their ability to interact with society and he decided to teach Eliza, who had a strong cockney accent, to prove his point.
The high point of the film for me was when Eliza, after a long period of elocution training without any apparent progress, finally repeated the sentence “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” enunciating confidently in clear English.
Everyone has some form of an accent. It is easier to accept this notion once we understand that we pronounce words and speak differently because we all come from different areas of the world. Speaking our indigenous languages (or the dominant language spoken where we have grown up) is also a great influence and the social class we were born into also plays a huge role in influencing our accents. There are no good or bad accents, there is only badly spoken English.
The earliest influences on one’s diction are typically the immediate family and environment, school (especially primary school), and media (TV, radio, and the internet). I learnt the importance of speaking properly from my parents (my father taught in university and my mum, in secondary school) and my immediate extended family.
I recall my father constantly reminding us to say “ask” instead of “axe” or one time, gisting with older cousins who made the younger ones pronounce words like “develop”, “cognac”, and “hors d’oeuvres”, and making fun of us when we mispronounced them: those were hilarious times!
As a child, I remember arguing about how some words were pronounced simply because my primary school teachers had pronounced those words differently. It wasn’t till much later that I realised that many of the teachers I had, spoke a certain way due to their native tongue, and thus, may have mispronounced certain words. For many people, especially those who did not benefit from attending good schools or schooling in multicultural areas, the influence of their native tongue on how they speak English is quite evident.
The media’s influence is also notable as the proliferation of cable TV and the diversity of channels and programmes has greatly influenced how we speak. Add the advent of the internet and you will understand how people who have never been to the airport sound like they were born and bred in New York. Many people have drawn inspiration by copying their favourite celebrities, media personalities, and influencers, and unfortunately, many of these people do not even speak properly so we now have a lot of confusing accents everywhere.
Back in the day, there was a fair balance between indigenous and foreign media content. The majority of the programmes we watched on TV or listened to on the radio were anchored by Nigerians who emphasised speaking properly as against speaking with a foreign accent. You could listen to an interview or watch the news, and understand what the presenter was saying.
Nowadays, practically every media personality has either an inborn or acquired “phonay” (foreign accent) making one wonder if that is part of their recruitment criteria and if so, is a British one better than any of the American ones?
Professor Higgins belief about the influence of one’s accent on one’s prospects within society is not far from the truth. Take some time and listen to people speaking around you and you would notice that many tend to speak with an acquired accent. In many situations, especially those regarding first impressions (interviews, presentations, and business meetings for example), we are largely judged (and also judge others) by how we (or they) speak. However, we need to always remember that for those who are not native English speakers or who didn’t learn English as a first language, the presence of an accent is more certain than not. Many people have used this excuse as a defence but I always say that as long as English is our official language, we have to learn to speak it properly.
One thing I have noticed that always leaves me in stitches is something I call “accent piggybacking”. This refers to a situation where one or more of the participants in a conversation adopts the accent of the person they consider to have a more superior accent. This is usually a subconscious act as many remain unaware when they switch accents but some do it intentionally. It often happens when in conversation with foreigners or people who speak with foreign accents, which makes me wonder, if you are speaking clearly, why would you assume another person’s accent is superior to yours?
We need to reconsider our preference for all things foreign.
I recall a story a friend shared with me about a colleague of hers who travelled abroad for the first time. His company sponsored his attendance at a one- week training programme in Scotland which was scheduled during winter. Unfortunately, there was a snowstorm on the day he arrived and he was snowed in for a few days. The training was cancelled and he had to return to Nigeria as scheduled. On resuming at the office, this guy presented a newly minted variant of an American accent imported from Aberdeen! My friend blamed it on the TV programmes he was probably watching while snowed in at the hotel!
Our various Nigerian accents come out beautifully when we speak English. It even offers us great conversation starters as people would often be curious enough to ask where we are from. Listening to people like the musician, Onyeka Onwenu and the late former Prime Minister of Nigeria, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa speak is enough proof that speaking properly is more important than presenting an acquired accent.
Some opine that they switch accents because they want the people they are speaking with to better understand them but I always ask why those people don’t switch accents for the same reason.
Learning to speak properly can be achieved at any age, one just needs to learn to focus and concentrate when speaking. The aim is always to speak well enough to be understood. Remember that what we say and how we say it, how we speak and sound, how we enunciate words, pitch, voice rate, use of words, all matter, and influence how we are perceived by people. Let us also celebrate our indigenous accents the same way English speaking French or German, Swahili or Zulu, Singaporean or Chinese people do.
The world is truly a global village and it is made more beautiful by the diversity we all bring to it. Rock your accent well, don’t let anyone fool you into thinking it is inferior to any other accent. We need to preserve our cultural diversity and imitating others will not help us achieve this. We are already superior, we know this, and that is the way I see things today.