English is not my native language. My mother tongue doesn’t really matter but I know that my nationality, as many others, has the reputation of having a strong accent when speaking in English. thoughtbot is my first job having to speak in English throughout the day, and even if I know I have improved my English level since I joined, especially spoken, my native accent remains strong. Working in a foreign language is a double-edged sword: you’re continuously challenging and improving your skills, but it also requires extra work.
I used to feel ashamed of my native accent. I would regularly ask my teammates
if I was understandable, or asking for feedback about my accent. When I asked
for people to be honest, I usually heard nice things, but also confirmation that
my native accent remained strong, and thought of all the work I still had to do
to fix that.
I have a bad English accent.
But why exactly did I want to reduce my native accent? If not my native one, which accent was I aiming to have? With some introspection and talks with friends, I discovered that many of us might have bias when hearing people with a distinctive accent. We are more focused on trying to understand the sentences when we’re not used to the accent, rather than what is actually said. To some extent, there is even sometimes a feeling of the person being less qualified.
Like the non-male, the non-white and the non-able-bodied, non-native speakers often face an uphill struggle to be heard and taken seriously. Research shows that they are seen as less intelligent and competent, are less likely to be found suitable for higher-status jobs, and are less likely to be believed when delivering trivia statements.
I am doing my best to work on this bias but I am convinced that I suffer or used to suffer from this on both sides: unconsciously judging people based on their accent, and fearing to appear less competent because of my mine. This probably fuelled me to work harder to reach someday the “proper English accent”.
In my mind, I had to sound more British or North-American. Not only will we see why this goal is motivated by the wrong reasons, but even selecting “British or North-American” is arbitrary and doesn’t make sense. Is the British accent the one from London? Which part of London? What about Manchester, which is as British as London. What about Glasgow, with the Scottish accent famously considered stronger, which is also a British accent.
Even if we could miraculously agree on what the British accent is, would it make it the “right” English accent? Would then another accent from Texas, USA, or Ontario, Canada, be right as well? Where is the limit?
Now, let’s talk about Singapore. English is one of its official languages and is even the lingua franca. The standard form of English used in Singapore is called the Standard Singapore English, also known as Singlish. Singlish being heavily influenced by Malay, Hokkien and Cantonese, can any accent from anyone in Singapore be considered proper English? The answer is yes. As can any accent from people speaking Jamaican English or Nigerian English.
There is no such thing as proper English or proper English accent, because any accent is legitimate.
When I had doubts about my native accent, my team lead once said to me: “Most people like hearing my national accent”. They also said: “The British accent is overrated”. That is what inspired me writing this blog article. At first, what they said reassured me, thinking that my native accent could be appreciated, even if, in my opinion, incorrect. Later, it helped me realise this thinking wasn’t relevant. Our ability to communicate and share knowledge and experience matters most.
In my team, there are more than a dozen different nationalities and even more accents. We can all speak English and understand each other, while having very different ways of speaking it. This diversity is what really helped me improve my English, more than my own dedication to learn the language.
We already talked about having a diverse team on this blog. Another positive aspect is being open to any voice whatever it sounds like. Having a team with people from a lot of different backgrounds will bring many different accents, and many different accents will help make a team more equitable and inclusive, where people can be themselves.
I still want to improve my English accent, to be able to sound less of my native accent. Not because I want to sound more qualified, but because I, personally, want to be able to master my accent and my pronunciation. This is not required for my work, this is not needed for speaking with clients. This is part of a process to improve my English overall. I want to be able to decide whenever I want to share part of my identity through my accent or not. And also because it’s fun to master a skill.
I do my best not to think too much of my accent. It is part of who I am, where I
come from. My pronunciation can even sometimes bring context about some existing
English words. My accent, as my nationality, my background or my story, is an
opportunity to bring my part to a diverse team where we all learn from each
other. I have a
bad accent in English, and that’s okay.