One occasionally hears it insisted that, outside certain culturally distinct regions of the country, Americans “don’t have an accent.” This notion is exposed as nonsense the moment one of those Americans starts speaking a foreign language, sometimes at the very first word. “Hold the palm of your hand up in front of your mouth and say ‘Paris’ in English,” advises the host of the Economist video above. “You’ll feel a little puff of air on your hand. Now, try the same thing again, but try to remove that puff of air, and you’ll get something closer to the French sound.” While this test works best for Americans, native speakers of many languages other than French should feel a difference.
No matter where they’re from, “people find themselves subconsciously adapting words of a foreign language to fit the rules of their own,” combining, emphasizing, and dropping sounds in the manner to which they’ve been accustomed since early childhood: the native Arabic speaker pronounces children as childiren, the Spaniard says he comes from espain, a Frenchman calls Texas’ biggest city yoo-STON.
It’s one thing to master a foreign language’s library of sounds, but quite another to nail its “stress patterns” that dictate which syllables are emphasized. That no syllables are emphasized in Japanese reveals the native stress patterns of its foreign speakers: listen to how clearly the distinctive American English rhythm comes through in, say, the name of the famous novelist ha-RU-ki mu-ra-KA-mi.
Some languages, like Italian and Cantonese, are “syllable timed,” which means that “every syllable has roughly the same duration.” This is quite unlike English, whose “stressed syllables come at roughly regular intervals, and the remainder are less distinctly pronounced.” Non-native English speakers who ignore that aspect of the language will always sound foreign, no matter their level of fluency. Of course, having an accent isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and indeed, we all know individuals who have played it up to great advantage in their personal and professional lives. But as an American living abroad, I do feel a certain responsibility to contradict our reputation for blithe ineptitude outside English. Such an effort must begin with taking any language, whatever its particular set of technical or cultural characteristics, one sound at a time.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.