The Quest to Speak Perfect English

we are the guy sitting on the chair.
we are the guy sitting on the chair.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon a video by an Indian guy named Russell Peters while browsing through Youtube. It was a snippet of his stand-up comedy show revolving around the issues of race, stereotype, and culture. And golly, was it funny. Impeccable impersonations of accents ranging from Chinese, Indian (although he spoke with perfect American accent) to Arabic; razor-sharp observations on different cultures of people and the stereotypes; and lots of funny, bordering on inappropriate anecdotes – all of these are neatly packaged in a one and a half hour full of endorphin-boosting goodness. Two clicks on the Google search box later, I found out that he is a Canadian.

This fact piqued my interest about the issue of accent in speaking English. Perfect accent is becoming more and more important as vocabulary and grammar in learning English today. For the people who have English as their second or third language, trying to speak with neutral English accents – American or British- is a hard feat. No matter how well you hide it, your accent will still slip out in conversations, especially when you are feeling intense emotions. In this case, you have two choices : either give in to your local accents or try your damnedest to get rid of them. It is the matter of your own preference and language skill.

Some accents make the speakers sound sophisticated and exotic, granted if they are not so heavy as to be incomprehensible for the listeners. They give the listeners a little peek into the life background of the speakers,
and can work to enhance the image of the speakers. Let’s do a little test. What pops into your mind when you hear someone speaking English with French accent? You are imagining someone chic and beautiful. It’s Eiffel and billowing hair and beret for girls. Or for the guys – floppy hair and scarf and crooked smile. Speaking English with French accent is regarded as more desirable sometimes, than speaking with unaccented,neutral English.

But, there are also some accents that the speakers try to avoid having for the exact opposite reasons. They reflect lesser on the speakers, and the speakers will usually try to drop them if possible. Most of them are sing-songy and come across as funny or cute. They don’t conjure up the notion of excellent education and perfect pedigree in your mind.

Most of the people associate the idea of having the perfect English accent with privileged background. People treat you nicer and smile more. In fact, this is not always the case. We are so caught up thinking how to speak in the right and proper accent, we are not saying anything at all. I saw this happened with one of the members of SNSD – that band – who was asked to give a greeting to their fans at Madison Square Garden. She held the microphone for such a long time, and she only managed to utter the words ” I love you.” I bet she could say more if she wasn’t paying so much attention to sound right.

I think having an accent is okay, as long as it is still understandable. It shows that people are willing to learn a new language, which might be hard. This is true especially for people whose language isn’t based on Latin alphabet, but pictograph – such as Chinese. For me, I had it easier. Bahasa Indonesia and English are both based on Latin alphabet, and there aren’t many major differences between them, except grammar and tenses. So, I picked them up pretty quick. It’s a whole different thing with Mandarin. As I am studying Chinese now, I can tell you it’s no walk in the park. I’d rather study German or Spanish. Ugh.

Readers, what is your stance on the issue of accent? Yes or No?

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