14 January 2011

The question of identity and language.

One of my New Year's resolutions was to get away from a particular language forum.  I've been spending too much time arguing various things there, and sometimes I do make a bit of a fool of myself.  So I'm off for a bit to cool off, although I'll be popping back in for a couple of particular topics only.

Anyhow, I thought I'd take the opportunity to firm up my thoughts on a particular topic that we'd been discussing in December - the importance of accent to the learner.

The first angle I'd like to cover this from is the idea that your accent is part of your identity, the "face" of your voice, as it were.

Accent: your voice's face?

OK, so as I said, many people see their accent as a major outward component of their identity.  Personally, I cannot accept that, as it would basically make me two faced.  When I was a child, I spoke with a Scots accent (in fact, I spoke a language that was neither Scots or English, but a little of both), but I learned through the education system to speak with a more SSE (Scottish English) accent.  Eventually, through university friends and work, I adjusted myself to an even more Englicised[*] way of speaking.  Now my accent, grammar and vocabulary all vary across this spectrum depending on who I'm speaking to.

( [*] Yes, I made up this word.  However, "anglicised" doesn't cut it in this situation as Scots and English are both Anglo-Saxon tongues.  Only one of them is from "England", though. )

Does this make me an attention-whore?  Not really.  This is a completely natural part of language, and we all do it to an extent.  Linguists call it convergence.  The idea is that when we want to show social closeness to others, we talk in a way more like them.  On the other hand, if we want to show social distance, we talk less like them.

Studying this concept several years ago led me to an interesting philosophical standpoint:

True identity is relative.

On first reading, that may seem a little insane, so let me explain.

Consider the difference in social etiquette in Spain and Scotland.
In Scotland, when you're introduced to someone, you'll probably give them a little wave, or if you're very bold, you might go as far as a timid handshake.  Only on very rare occasions will you kiss or hug them - maybe they're a brother's fiancée or something.  In Spain, on the other hand, guys will immediately go for a firm handshake if they're in range, and a guy and a girl or two girls will almost invariably kiss.

If you define "reservedness" as part of a "Scottish identity" and "forwardness" as part of a "Spanish identity", then you are suggesting that a guy from the UK who goes to Spain and starts merrily kissing the chicas has lost his identity, but I don't feel this is the case.

When I'm in Spanish company, I tend to act the same way as they do, but I don't feel that my identity is threatened.  In fact, I feel that I am projecting the same self-image as I do when surrounded by my friends in Edinburgh.

If I was to continue to act in a "Scottish" way while with Spanish people, I would seem completely antisocial, but that's not my identity.  In order to seem equally sociable in Spanish-speaking company as I do in a Scottish country pub, I have to act differently.

Similarly, if a Spanish guy comes to Scotland and continues to act in a "Spanish" way with Scottish people, he will seem excessively outgoing, possibly to the point of being creepy.  He too has to modify his behaviour to seem as reserved to us as he does to people in his own country.

Essentially, socially conditioned behaviours are not our identity; they're not even "markers" of our identity; they are simply a means of transmission of identity.  Some of the worst excesses of racism and xenophobia can be traced to the tendency to view behaviours as fixed markers of identity.  Anyone who acts differently is shunned.  Even homophobia is rooted in the same idea -- if you behave differently, you're "them", not "us".

And language is nothing if not a socially conditioned behaviour.

So this takes us back to the idea of linguistic convergence.  We do not speak like people in order to "be like them", but to show that "we like them".  Ever wonder why some foreign people don't want to talk to you?  They're not being snobbish -- they think you're being snobbish, because you're diverging from them.  Maintaining a heavy foreign accent isn't "keeping your own identity", but distancing yourself from the other party -- rejecting their identity, in effect.

In fact, I find myself converging when I speak to Spanish speakers from different regions.  The most notable example was when I was chatting up a Venezuelan (or was she Columbian) and my accent changed massively.  Yes, when you fancy someone, you converge very heavily towards their accent. 

I'm sure I'll get a couple of responses starting "ah, but what about...", so I'll try to pre-empt the biggest one.

"What about regional accents?  Do people from London have problems with people from Glasgow?"  No, because convergence does take place.  People from London and people from Glasgow find it difficult to understand each other, and they do modify their speech to help each other along.  There's give and take, but with a heavy-accented foreigner, the native is forced to do all the converging.  There's no reciprocation, so it becomes an imposition.

Native speakers do try to accommodate to non-native learners, but really, the lion's share of the effort has to come from the learner, he is the one that is demonstrably further from the social norm, and the native will normally only converge towards a neutral way of speaking, like a newsreader or teacher's professional accent.

Because, in the end accent is linked to their identity... for a native speaker.  When you ask someone to change their accent, you are actually asking them to modify their identity.

Your native accent is not part of your second-language identity.  You have to construct that identity for yourself.  Using your first-language accent in your second language presents an identity of being an outsider and being indifferent to the speakers of your host language.  Show them you want to get on with them and they'll want to talk to you.


Thrissel said...

I'm afraid I'll disappoint you, I've nothing to disagree with ;-).

I've spent the first half of my life in the north-east of the CR and the second half in the south-west. My speech is a mixture of both (when I meet someone who doesn't know me at either place they pretty soon classify me as 'not a local guy but neither a complete stranger'), but I do notice my accent rapidly changing when travelling between the two, and see no reason for sticking to one for the sake of 'identity'. It's similar to the vocabulary one uses when talking to people of differing ages. I don't see myself as trying to look older or younger (as the case may be) than I am when using an 'old-fashioned' adjective with sixty-year-olds and a 'neologism' with twenty-year-olds to express the same idea.

Just a note which may or may not interest you: when I first visited the UK I was already well over the beginner stage. In general I found it significantly easier to communicate with the Scots than with the English, and my explanation was that the English, seeing somebody who could do better than 'It iss a nice day tooday', spoke as they would to another local, while Scots, hearing there's a distinct foreign accent nonetheless, switched to what they had used to talk like at school.

Alexandre said...

Considering that changing your accent is a betrayal of your personality, is the same as thinking that your hairstyle or the brand of clothes you wear define who you are. It's vain. In the case of language, it's borderline xenophobia. If you think sounding Spanish or Russian makes you a lesser individual, then you are indeed xenophobic.

Acquisition of knowledge and abilities, or any other kind of horizon-broadening activity, is not a perversion or a betrayal of the self. Thinking so is just a very simple and convenient way to pretend that intellectual laziness is acceptable.

Language and social behaviour are filters that are external to one's personality: choosing the appropriate social and cultural filters do not change the person.