I’ve come with a test to measure how convincing your accent is when speaking in a foreign language. It’s called the ¿De dónde eres? test and it works like so:
Start a conversation with a native Spanish speaker. Let’s say, for example, it’s an internet provider offering to upgrade your broadband to fiber optic. Now see how long the conversation lasts before the person asks:
“¿De dónde eres?”
If it’s the first thing they say after you’ve opened your mouth, you’ve failed to mimic the pronunciation of even the most basic greeting. If you manage to reach the part of the conversation in which you’re discussing tariffs—not bad, you had them guessing there for a while, until you said “¿y es un contrato sin permanencia?" which left your lips as “¿y es un contraCto sin permanencia?" and gave the game away. If you’ve managed to agree on the terms of your brand new fiber optic installation and you’re now shaking hands, well done you. Your interlocutor believes that they’ve just had a conversation with a home-grown Spaniard.
I apply this test to myself on a regular basis. Before speaking I take a deep breath, meditate a little and channel a solid masculine-sounding Spanish voice like one of those authoritative suits that present la liga matches. The words leave my mouth and fill the air. I hear them, they don’t sound like me, but as long as it sounds like someone Spanish I don’t really care. Sounds pretty authentic, I think to myself as the conversation starts to flow. Then, a pin is pulled and the grenade is dropped at my feet:
“¿De dónde eres?”
I feel like a failure. Something in my accent has betrayed me. We were supposed to be a team, I scream at my tongue. Was it the way I pronounced acceso like “akcesso” ? Did I roll an R that wasn’t supposed to be rolled? Did I stumble clumsily across the middle part of disponibilidad? My confidence takes a knock and I want to curl into a ball and transport myself to an English pub, where I can blabber away unconsciously without ever having to second-guess the stream of nonsense coming from my mouth.
The thing is, though, this is not a healthy way to learn a language. It can be, in fact, counter-productive. Here’s why:
1) We try to categorise people anyway, no matter where they’re from
We naturally want to place people, to pop them into a box covered in tags and labels that we’ve picked up from life experiences with people like them. It helps us to make sense of the world, and we do so quickly, subconsciously and, for the most part, completely innocently. We ask the question “¿De dónde eres?” to native English speakers from different countries (someone from Wales to someone from the USA), to people from the same country but a different region, to people from the same region but a different town, people from the same town but a different...you get the idea. Even the dreaded lift conversation can quickly resort to: “Are you on the third floor or the fourth? The one that overlooks the park, right?”
The question is much more to do with how we see ourselves in comparison with other people than an assessment on language skills. It’s no different to the standard cluster of questions we draw on to make small talk: “What do you do for a living?”, “How do you know [insert name of mutual friend]” and so on. It’s true that the question may surface a lot quicker in conversations between a native speaker and a non-native speaker, but that’s only because it offers a shortcut to conversation construction (or a life ring if you’re at a party stuck on the sofa next to someone you don’t know).
2) There’s no such thing as a perfect accent
There are people in this world who say things like: “Wow, I love the fact you have an accent”, as if “an accent” was something the speaker didn’t have, as if it were a Mohawk, a parrot or a third nostril. The speaker here can rest safe in the knowledge that they, too, have an accent, which they can love just as much as they claim to love the accent of the other person. Every single one of us speaks a variation of our native language, even if the exposure we get to those variations (think news presenters) is often limited. If your accent matches one that constantly gets airtime through TV, radio, films, announcements on public transport, etc. you may be lulled into a false world in which your voice is normal and any variation on it abnormal. Catch any bus in London and you’ll be blown away by the sheer amount of aural variety on offer, like having access to a digital radio instead of an AM/FM shortwave only. English has proliferated throughout the world, and the beauty of it lies in the fact that while the structure itself remains the same, the decorative flourishes and interior design bursts into life and differs from community to community.
Some of the most heart-warming, delightful voices are those that we perceive to “have an accent”. They have the power to enrich a language, probing at the syllables we’d never thought to probe, placing stress on part of a word for comic effect, taking the music of everyday speech, re-composing it, and sounding it out once more to create fresh and surprising melodies. Take a look at the German comedian Henning Wehn for one such example.
3) A perfect accent is an unrealistic target to set
Unless you grew up in a bilingual family, being able to speak more than one language fluently and with a local accent is the Everest of linguistic challenges. You’ll have been climbing that mountain for years before you stop, look up, take stock and realise that you’re barely at the halfway point. Learning a language is an endless process. Think about your own language and all the ridiculous words you barely ever use: kerfuffle, odds and ends, hullabaloo effervescent...do you really need to learn all of that in the language you’ve chosen to learn? Do you really want to? The same goes for accent. Take a step back for a minute. Why are you struggling to strain your vocal chords and morph your voice? To be understood? Then fine, keep climbing. To sound exactly like Pep Guardiola? Then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate. There’s always going to be something that gives you away, because your tongue has been producing sounds in your chosen second language for three years, compared to your native tongue that’s been spitting out your first language since you were crawling around in nappies.
When we aim for perfect mimicry of a native speaker, we’re aiming for the stars. Each time we fail, we commit a kind of confidence self-sabotage that makes us less and less willing to actually communicate for fear of messing up again. It’s an extremely restrictive cycle of fear and failure. And more often than not, it’s all in our own heads. They’re judging me, we whisper to ourselves. She definitely noticed that I pronounced “imprescindible” weirdly. Benny Lewis, a polyglot from Ireland, says:
“Perfectionism is a really bad thing in language learning because language is a means of communication, it’s a way to get to know new people and new cultures, and when you embrace this it’s OK to make mistakes [...] I have a goal to make 200 mistakes a day.”
Don’t do the “¿De dónde eres?” test. Do the “¿A dónde quieres llegar?” test. Where do you want to get to? Ask yourself that, throw yourself into conversation, be proud of your accent, embrace your errors and, while you’re at it, find out where your local broadband operative is from. The answer might just surprise you.