As a non-native English speaker, you’ve probably been in a conversation with someone who made an observation about your accent, whether positive or negative.
Even though accents are a fact of life – we all have them, even in our native language – the topic can make us feel sensitive, defensive, frustrated, or discouraged.
For most of us, talking about accents is a loaded topic, which means it can cause a lot of different emotions.
Recently, a member of this community asked how to handle comments about their accent:
How should I respond to people who keep making the remark, “Oh, you have a little accent”?
There are two issues we need to address when people make observations about your accent.
First, we need to talk about why you feel sensitive when hearing feedback about your accent.
Second, we need to talk about other people’s perceptions of your accent.
Why You Feel Sensitive When People Comment On Your Accent
The truth is we can all quickly identify when someone has an accent, including regional accents or dialects.
This means when someone comments on your accent, they’re identifying you as different.
This can feel really personal, even deeply unsettling.
As human beings, we’re biologically programmed to panic if we feel like we’re outside of the group. We need each other for safety.
Back in the day, being in the group was how we survived attacks from big animal predators as well as attacks from other outside groups.
In other words, we want to feel like we belong.
Personally, when someone comments on my accent in Spanish, or worse, imitates it, I can get really frustrated, to say the least.
Unless I can catch myself, I might say something that’s not as polite or patient as I usually am, especially if they’re not the first person to make this comment.
As it turns out, researchers have done a number of studies that prove these points.
Let’s look at a few excerpts from an article called “Language Attitudes in the Americas,” an excellent summary of the extensive research on the topic:
When lacking visible cues to distinguish ingroup from outgroup members, we use language and accent to detect the distinction.
Even when visible cues are present, we nevertheless turn to language, not appearance, to categorize people as either belonging to our group or not.
Research shows that in fact we are extremely sensitive to cues of foreignness detecting non-native speech in milliseconds and in speech played backwards.
Fascinating, right? Our ears are able to detect even the most minor, tiny clues that the person is a non-native speaker.
As we can see, accent and identity are complex.
That’s why most of the non-native speakers I work with tell me that they want to reduce their accent because they want to fit in better, blend in better, not stand out quite so much.
If this is why you care about your accent in English, please know that this is completely normal.
Why People Care About Your Accent in English
Now, let’s talk about how people perceive an accent.
As I mentioned a moment ago, we can immediately detect a foreign or regional accent.
Some people may mention your accent as an interesting fact or a conversation starter.
They might bring it up just like they would talk about the sky being blue or cloudy.
You’re going to have to read the situation in order to know how best to respond.
Unfortunately, we also need to talk about negative perceptions of non-native accents.
As mentioned in “Language Attitudes in the Americas”:
The sensitivity to others’ linguistic backgrounds has real consequences for speakers and listeners alike.
People’s attitudes to those who speak differently tend to be negative and result in stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination in all aspects of everyday life, including education, employment, and the media.
In fact, a recent study asked, “Why Don’t We Believe Non-Native Speakers?” Here’s what they discovered:
While participants rated statements with a mild accent as just as truthful as native speakers, they rated heavily accented statements as less truthful.
The accent makes it harder for people to understand what the non-native speaker is saying. They misattribute the difficulty in understanding the speech to the truthfulness of the statement.
People commenting on your accent may be asking themselves, “Do I understand this person?”
Some people may simply decide that they don’t understand you, even if they actually could, if they tried.
Unfortunately, not everyone puts in the effort to understand non-native accents, even though communication is about meeting people halfway.
Other people may have more exposure to and be more familiar with certain accents or dialects than others.
Keep in mind that most people are more interested in understanding what you have to say than how your accent sounds.
This is why I often encourage you to focus on communicating clearly and confidently, rather than worrying about your accent.
Please understand that I’m not sharing this information to discourage you.
I just want you to understand what may be happening in the person’s head, whether they like it or not.
Consciously, as sensitive human beings, we all know that accents shouldn’t matter; but unconsciously, they do.
Please note that comments about your accent may be a form of accent discrimination or linguistic racism. I encourage you to consult with local legal professionals if you need additional support or guidance.
How to Handle Comments About Your Accent in English
So how should you handle comments about how you sound when speaking English?
It helps to be prepared to respond when someone mentions your accent.
The simplest way to handle these comments is to acknowledge that yes, you are a non-native speaker.
This means you speak English in addition to your native language(s).
Besides that, you can try other approaches.
For example, you can choose to:
- find humor or make a joke
- educate the other person
- change the subject or exit the conversation
If you choose to make a joke in response to their comment, you can say, “Oh, I didn’t notice,” and wink and give them a big smile.
Or you can show your mastery of English by using a common idiom: “You can take the girl out of France, but you can’t take the French out of my accent.”
Or you can make a joke like, “I wish someone had told me how hard it was to get an American accent when I started learning English.”
Alternatively, you may decide to educate or enlighten the other person by helping them understand how much work it is to learn another language to fluency, or how complicated it can be to change your accent as an adult.
Chances are they probably haven’t learned another language to fluency themselves.
Please note that this type of response creates work for you, so you will have to consider whether this interaction is worth your time.
Similarly, if you’re tempted to respond in a more confrontational manner, I encourage you to put your own wellbeing first.
If someone is trying to make you feel bad by criticizing your accent, it is not your responsibility to fix their perception. You do not have to justify your reasons for speaking English, having an accent, or living in another country.
Consider the Context of the Comment
Other times you want to consider the context of the comment: Are they actually worried they won’t understand you?
In this case, be proactive.
Invite them to let you know if anything you say is hard for them to understand.
Ask them to help you if you stumble over tricky technical words.
You’re inviting them to be part of the solution, so they’ll feel more invested in the conversation.
Another thing you can do is make an effort to repeat yourself in other words for clarity.
On the other hand, if the other person is pointing out your accent to make you feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, defensive, or less-than, you can choose to simply exit the conversation.
How to Describe Non-Native Accents in English
Last but not least, I want to clarify the language that we often use when talking about accents.
If you have a minor or mild accent, the person might say that you have a slight accent or a little accent.
If your accent has more influence from your native language, they may say that you have a strong accent or a heavy accent.
As always, context matters. They may be simple, if uninvited, observations.
Other times, these comments are indirect ways for the other person to signal that they’re having trouble understanding you.
If someone wants to be rude, they may say you have a bad or a terrible accent, and I hope you never hear anyone say that.
If you do, it’s very likely not worth your time and energy trying to change the other person’s mind.
You Don’t Have to Completely Eliminate Your Accent to Communicate Confidently
In the end, whether or not you choose to work on your accent is up to you.
After all, accent is a marker of your identity, and you should feel proud of where you come from.
You don’t have to hide the fact that you’re a non-native speaker.
You should feel proud that you speak another language so well.
You’ll notice that my guidance and advice focuses on how to express yourself clearly so that people understand your meaning and your message.
For what it’s worth, I have an obvious American accent when I speak Spanish, and I understand that it may not be possible to completely eliminate my accent at this stage in my life.
I don’t believe that complete accent elimination is necessary or the best use of your time, so that’s why I encourage you to focus on clear communication instead.
I would love to have a conversation about this topic in the comments:
- What have people said about your accent?
- How did it make you feel?
- How did you react?
- Do you feel better prepared to handle these situations now?
I can’t wait to hear your perspective!