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Have you seen the American TV series “House M.D”? If you happen to be a fan, you’ll notice this different sound of Dr. Robert Chase. Easily, you’ll be able to tell, “This guy is not a native American speaker.” True enough, the guy is Australian. Have you heard how Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas pronounce their lines in movies and interviews?
Even without the knowledge of these celebrities’ heritage, one can spot, from the way they speak, that they have Hispanic tongue. Our native language creates this certain stereotype of accentuating part of a work or a sentence and pronouncing it. This is the so-called accent and pronunciation, respectively; and this stereotype makes speaking ‘foreign’ languages distinguishable as we happen to accentuate and pronounce the words and sentences differently from native speakers.
Accent and pronunciation are innate in our tongues from the time we learn to speak a word. Our brain stores information about how we hear the words as they are pronounced by people around us; thus, building distinct sound that is peculiar to specific group – e.g., British, American, Indian, Australian, Spanish, etc. Thus, in an international gathering, you may find different people speaking the same words in different accents and pronunciations.
Is having different accent and pronunciation bad? Well, generally, as long as people listening to you can understand what you are saying, and as long as you can successfully convey what you intend to say, accent and pronunciation should not really be a major concern. However, this becomes a big deal for some people who are “required” to sound like native speaker of a language foreign to him. For example, international actors and actresses should be able to portray any role that is assigned to them. One of the British actresses that can be commended for her brilliant tongue in speaking American English is Kate Winslet. No one can tell she’s a native British with the way she speaks in her American roles. Her language skill to speak native American English made her a very effective actress in a breadth of roles. What about Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) himself? He is a British actor with native American tongue; and this made him all the more effective in portraying his role as one of the best diagnosticians in the US. Another example would be the call center agents from Asian countries (particularly Philippines and India) to whom American, British, Australian, and other foreign companies outsource their customer support service to. Agents from these Asian countries are expected to have the native tongue of the country whose people they serve. Why? Because in communicating, listening is one thing, speaking is another. To be able to attend to customer’s need, an agent must first clearly understand the concern and respond in a manner that the customer will understand. This makes an effective customer service representative, and this will not be possible without learning the proper accent and pronunciation of the required language. Top executives of companies, broadcasters, and other celebrities or public figures are also expected to speak the international language, American English, in correct accent and pronunciation. This is so since corporate gatherings and public events are usually communicated using American English. More importantly, the skill to correctly pronounce and accentuate words in foreign language, as if it’s your native language, adds confidence to a person.
People who are good at identifying the native language of a speaker is said to “have quite an ear.” Those who are good at speaking a foreign language in native manner is said to “have quite a tongue.” Luckily, being able to speak a language in a native manner is more of a skill than a talent. We were all born without knowing how to speak a single word. We learn words (and their accent and pronunciation) as we get exposed to them. This makes it possible to also learn foreign language the right way. There are courses that are offered to teach students how to correctly pronounce and accentuate words. Students are those who are either required to learn how to properly speak a foreign language or those who are just interested for personal growth.
Language is one of the major catalysts of belongingness. It’s not odd to feel out of line when people around you start to speak language you don’t understand. Learning the language is the first step, speaking it correctly is in another higher level.