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.
If the person you’re speaking with is more comfortable with non-native speakers, this may not be such a big deal.
It may be 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.
The good news is that having a mild accent is seen as just as trustworthy as someone with a native accent.
This is why I often encourage you to focus on being more easily understood, focus on clear communication rather than having a perfect accent.
It’s not necessary to completely eliminate your accent, but to focus on making sure it’s easy for people to understand you.
Please understand that I’m not sharing this information to discourage you.
You probably already feel this way when considering non-native speakers of your native language.
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.
How to Handle Comments About Your Accent in English
So how should you handle comments about your accent?
Your job in this situation is to handle the comments by reassuring the person that yes, you are a non native speaker, but you speak well.
Remember, they may be asking themselves, “Do I understand this person?”
Like I mention in Five Reasons Why Native Speakers Don’t Understand You, they may simply decide that they don’t understand you, even if they actually could, if they tried.
Not everyone has their ear trained to understand non-native accents, or they may be more familiar with certain accents than others.
For this reason, it helps to be prepared to respond when someone mentions your accent.
You can try a number of approaches.
First, you can make a joke about it. You can say, “Oh, I didn’t notice,” and wink and give them a big smile.
Or you can use a common idiom to show insider cultural knowledge: “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.”
Humor helps everyone in the interaction feel more relaxed.
Remember, most people who comment on your accent probably haven’t learned another language to fluency themselves, so they don’t understand how complicated it can be.
Or if they do understand, they’re trying to make themselves feel better than you, and that’s a whole other problem that’s not your responsibility to fix.
Help People Feel More Confident They’ll Understand You
Other times you want to consider the context: Are they worried they won’t understand you? Are they worried they can’t trust you?
As we discussed, people don’t feel this way because they consciously want to, and they probably wouldn’t want to admit how they feel to themselves.
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.
Don’t forget, native speakers also say, “How do you say that?” and admit when they don’t know how to pronounce a word.
Another thing you can do is make an effort to repeat yourself in other words for clarity.
If the other person is pointing out your accent because they feel mean-spirited, you can choose to simply exit the conversation, or just acknowledge it with, “Yes, I do.”
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 is more obviously non-native, they may say that you have a strong accent or a heavy accent.
These are polite, if uncomfortable, ways of acknowledging your accent.
And sometimes they may be 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 probably not worth your time trying to change the other person’s mind.
You Don’t Have to Completely Eliminate Your Accent to Be Understood
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 accent advice focuses on how to communicate clearly so that you’ll be easy to understand.
I want to help you sound more natural because I want you to feel like you fit in better, and that you’re able to express your meaning, the same thing I want for myself when I speak Spanish.
I have an obvious American accent when I speak Spanish, and I understand that it may not be that possible to completely eliminate my accent at this stage in my life.
I don’t believe that complete accent elimination is necessary, so that’s why I focus on the aspects of accent reduction that are most necessary for communication.
From my experience working with non-native speakers living in the US and Canada, I know that improving your stress and intonation will help you fit in better at work and also in your personal life.
You don’t have to have a perfect accent to see that people understand and even treat you better when you speak with natural-sounding stress and intonation.
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!