Something that interests me immensely about fellow language learners is the value they place on accent.
Guys, accent matters. The way some of you treat it as an afterthought really makes me sad. And I can guarantee that improving your Spanish accent will win you more friends.
Admittedly, it’s extremely hard to achieve a native-sounding accent without speaking your second language for many, many years. But a little goes a long way, and I firmly believe that speaking with a good Spanish accent is not hard to do. In comparison to learning vocabulary and grammatical structures, it’s actually so much easier. And it can be practised independently of the more academic aspects of the language.
What this means is that you can still speak Spanish well without actually knowing the language to a high level. And making the effort to do so will have a massive impact on your ability to make new friends.
Effort vs. ability
A good accent does not necessarily represent high ability, but it does demonstrate a significant level of effort. And when you’re out there in the field trying to meet people, demonstrating effort is a bigger statement of character than knowledge or fluency. Think of all the people you’ve met who speak English fluently as a second language. I’m willing to bet some of them are dicks – or at least, their English ability alone was not enough to earn your respect.
I’m not trying to mask the importance of knowing a language well in making friends. But the brutal truth is that you might not be that good at Spanish yet. And if this is the case, making some effort to speak with a local accent is going to draw people to you regardless.
If you roll into an Argentinian boliche and make an effort to speak like them, they’re gonna love you. At a minimum, you should speak with a decent neutral Spanish accent. The worst thing you can do is make no effort and stumble through the experience like an average gringo chump.
Fake it ’til you make it
Another way of looking at it is that by speaking with a good accent, you are somewhat disguising your weaknesses. This can help you to give a better first impression which might be enough to carry you over the line with somebody, even if they later discover you’re not as good at Spanish as they initially thought.
This does cause problems at times, because you’re raising expectations. I always put a lot of effort into my French accent, and when I met people in Quebec it was sometimes deceiving for them. The conversation would quickly get out of hand because the person thought I was better than I was. Ultimately, I couldn’t keep up and would have to address my weaknesses later down the line. But if you handle this with grace it won’t hurt you.
I really believe in the power of that first impression. Sometimes you need to demonstrate a bit of swagger in order for people to hear you out. The more you speak with them the better you’ll get, so you shouldn’t see this as a manipulative strategy. You know you have a lot to offer and you’re just doing what you can to give yourself confidence.
There’s a concept in sociolinguistics called own-accent bias, in which it’s believed that people feel naturally closer to others with the same accent. Accent functions as an “honesty symbol”. So the flipside is that we’re more likely to be sceptical or distrusting of foreign accents.
It’s also recognised that some people speak with a slightly different accent when they’re around friends and family. Both of these concepts suggest that there’s a subconscious link between accent and acceptance. If you make an effort to speak with a local accent, you’re going to seem more familiar to people. And, as a result, you’re more likely to be accepted as one of their own.
A big part of this too is just being understood. If you rock up in Latin America with a heavy gringo accent, people are going to struggle to understand you. This means that your personality is not fully transmitted and some of your expression just gets lost in the aether.
People won’t always ask you to repeat – sometimes this misunderstanding will just be subconsciously written off as an incompatibility. You don’t want that, because it’s going to hinder your ability to establish connections and make friends.
All of this being said, it’s important that you maintain your own identity out there. But you shouldn’t fear losing your identity or being penned as a try-hard simply by making an effort with your accent. Ultimately, your accent will not be perfect anyway and people will still know that you’re from somewhere else.
Besides, the connection between accent and identity is only really important in your mother tongue. If you have a strong Scottish accent and you pretend to be American in the States, people are going to think you’re an idiot. And probably that you lack pride in your roots.
It’s different with a foreign language. Staying defiant to your natural accent only conveys laziness and arrogance, neither of which will endear you to new people.
It’s not that hard
Speaking with a good Spanish accent is really not that hard. You just have to pay attention to how they say things, and keep that in your mind as you speak. Watch some videos and play them back a few times until you get it, if that helps. And when you speak, put yourself in the shoes of a Mexican or Argentine just for a few minutes and see how it feels.
You also have to let go of your fear. Some people don’t try out of embarrassment at how they think they’ll sound. I totally get this. And if you need some help, there are other articles on Gringo Academy that can help with improving your Spanish accent.
Ultimately, accent matters. And socially, it’s just such an easy win.