Why you should feel confident speaking with an accent
“Where is that accent from?”
How many times have I heard this line and how many times I got frustrated…As soon as I open my mouth and start speaking English, I am uncovered. It can be upsetting, especially if you try your best to improve the way you speak.
Or, an even worse scenario. It happened to me recently with Welsh: I had just put into words a perfect grammatically composed question and the person I spoke to, did not understand me at all. I just got the scrunched eyebrows that say it all. At that moment my irritation level reached the maximum.
Does it happen to you too? You said a perfect Polish sentence, you crafted it in your head before, chose the right tense, adjusted the case ending…just to get that look which means “I didn’t get it” or a “huh”??? How annoying! You know it was correct, only the way you said it was the reason for the non-understanding.
Let’s see if you should worry and get frustrated about not being understood in a conversation with a native and what could you do about it.
Your accent = your personality
I used to say I wish I spoke an accentless English. Happily, those times are gone as soon as I realised that everyone has an accent. Especially here, in the UK, I have the impression that the way people speak changes from mile to mile.
Accent is a way of pronouncing the words of a language that shows which country, area or social class a person comes from. That’s the Oxford dictionary’s definition.
However, in the learning /teaching world I try to see accent in the first place not as a mark on your social group, position or location, but as an individual way of pronouncing words. It’s an integral part of us, one of our characteristics.
When you speak Polish with your English accent, whatever English accent you have, you dress the words with your person, with your voice. An accent is a personal touch to the words and sentences which look just lifeless on their own in dictionaries. With our accent we shape them, giving them a sound, intonation and rhythm.
Of course, having preferences in relation to various accents is natural and I certainly do it myself. There are some accents in Polish and English that I enjoy listening to and some I like less, however, as a learner and teacher I abandon the idea of thinking in categories of better and worse accents.
Listening to students speaking Polish always awakens my admiration. Sometimes, I may not understand you straight away what you try to communicate, I may ask for repetition. But expressing yourself in another language is already an achievement, worth praise and encouragement despite the way you pronounce the words.
Communication is the key
I have been living more than a decade in the UK and my English has an accent. Well, it is bastardised by all my languages. Moreover, I can still struggle with pronouncing some words correctly beard/ bear , cup / cap ) Yes, it happens to me too that I totally confuse the person I speak to and have to repeat it.
I don’t disregard the accent, however, for me the language is first of all a communication tool. As long as I can converse with my speaker and the message gets across, I don’t worry too much about my accent. If you are learning Polish, your ability to converse always should come first. Expressing yourself in Polish to your partner and friends, participating in conversation with natives, that’s what we learn a language for.
Teaching Polish to English speakers for many years, I can see what the main challenges are in terms of pronunciation of the language which lacks in vocals. One of my learners recently said that everything in Polish is like shshshshsh..
Another beginner stated that just looking at Polish words “decorated” with tails, accents, hooks makes him feel overwhelmed. Forget about saying correctly some words crammed with sz cz dz dź …Famous tongue twister “W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie” (In Szczebrzeszyn a beetle buzzes in the reed) is a pronunciation challenge even for a native.
Are you barely grasping the difference between kasza and Kasia or kasa? You are not alone. Many Polish learners struggle with it, but no-one is expecting you to pronounce Polish words as a native. It’s just unrealistic and you should not worry about it as long it doesn’t distort your conversation.
But one can always strive for improvement
Of course, even if you communicate excellently, I don’t mean you should not work on your accent reduction. It all comes down to your learning goals. If you would like to improve the way you pronounce in Polish, I would encourage you to go for it.
Myself, some years ago, I decided to work on my English and consulted a pronunciation tutor. I bought an Accent book and I was doing funny faces for a few months in the front of the mirror. I tried to perfectly place the lips, tongue to sound more British. It was a good exercise and I am sure I eventually improved, but you will never confuse me for a Briton.
I gave up on my tongue exercises and decided to be rather more attentive in listening in my daily conversations and imitate natives directly. As long I can communicate and get my message through, I don’t stress about it any more.
TO TAKE AWAY
If you began chatting in Polish and hear “sorry, what?” despite the fact what you said in Polish is correct, give the person time to adjust. It’s normal that it may take a few minutes for your speaker to get used to your voice and accent to start understanding you, so don’t give up after the first sentence!
Focus on the message rather on the accent. If there is no confusion and the conversation flows, you are doing very well!
If you want to improve, listen to Polish natives and copy them. Before you learn how to speak, you will need to improve on your listening skills. Get your ear used to the sounds of Polish. No native to hand? Get a radio, go on Youtube…
Practise with your partner or a friend. Nowadays, you can easily find an exchange partner online. Pay attention to how the mouth and lips move, ask to repeat difficult words.
Be yourself with your accent, you are unique, it’s a part of your personality! Believe me, Polish people will appreciate all your efforts while speaking. You may get a strange facial expression if you are not understood in the first instance, but we will smile for sure after.