Last week in the supermarket a woman overheard me speaking to my kids in Spanish and asked me, where I was from. As I am often asked this question, I answered with my usual response that I was born in Pennsylvania, but learned Spanish as an adult. Since she seemed interested, I explained to her that I am raising my children to be trilingual. “You have a very good accent,” she kindly told me and went on to finish her shopping. Her compliment made me feel good all day. I have really worked at improving my accent by doing special verbal exercises over the years, so it is nice to hear I sound satisfactory when speaking my second language. At the same time, her comment also left me to wonder, how important is an accent anyway?
This summer my husband and I spent six weeks on the road with our boys traveling all over the United States. We were visiting family, attending a wedding in Pittsburgh, hiking in national parks, and seeing as much of the country as we could. I was pleasantly surprised to hear Spanish just about everywhere we visited. I was also struck by how many different accents there are in the United States, both in Spanish and in English. There are actually many different accents just within my own family. The accents include the soft lilt of southern accents, the New York accent of another cousin, and the strong Pittsburgh accent that many of my relatives have. I heard so many different accents, and to my ears they all sounded unique and beautiful.
I am fortunate to be exposed to many different accents in the Spanish speaking playgroups that I participate in with my sons. There are moms from Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, and Venezuela. My college roommate, who is still one of my closest friends, is from Puerto Rico. There is a lot of beauty and variety in the Spanish language too.
Accents differ and exist naturally in languages, so why then is there so much concern about our children learning to speak Spanish with a perfect accent? I have seen a lot of concern about this topic in this and other blogs regarding multilingualism. I must admit that I have the same concerns, but when a Mexican friend lamented to me that her daughter spoke Spanish with an American accent, I started to wonder if maybe there is just a little too much emphasis on achieving perfection in language acquisition. I congratulated my friend on how well her daughter does speak Spanish. Although her daughter grew up in the United States, she had done a wonderful job raising a child who can speak both Spanish and English. Her daughter is fully bilingual, and accent or not, she can hold a conversation in just about any topic in either language. Although the ideal is that our children learn to speak a perfect Spanish with a native accent, it is not necessarily a disaster if there is a bit of an accent in their second language. The ability to communicate in a second language is really a great accomplishment.
Accents can and do change. I was surprised to hear a Pittsburgh cousin speaking with a slight southern accent. Having spent the past couple years working as a nurse in Mississippi, I noticed that the intonation of some of her words were just slightly different than before. Knowing that it is possible to change and improve on one’s pronunciation and accent, I myself used to practice regularly to improve my accent. Many of the exercises were boring and tedious, repeating the same phrases in conjunction with a taped speaker. Then one day I read an article about the use of tongue twisters for working on pronunciation. I loved playing with language this way!
This technique proved to be quite popular with my high school students as well. We would have competitions to see who could say the tongue twisters the fastest. There was always much laughing in class as the kids would recite the challenging twisters. The students had a lot of fun learning, and the tongue twisters were great at enabling the students to practice pronunciation, increase their vocabulary and build speaking confidence.
I recently introduced tongue twisters to my 2 and ½ year old son. He especially loved Pepe Pecas. Pepe Pecas pica papas con un pico. Con un pico pica papas Pepe Pecas. I would recite this tongue twister in bits and pieces, and he would try to repeat it back. We would sing it. I would say it fast, and he would try to repeat it quickly, but we would just end up laughing. Even one-year-old baby Patrick would laugh at our attempts to say the tongue twisters faster and faster. Every so often I choose a new tongue twister for us to play with, and it is always fun, and the fact that this may help with his accent and pronunciation is just an added benefit.
Have fun with your children using tongue twisters. This site has a lot of great Spanish tongue twisters, including their English translations. They can be a way to work on pronunciation and accent, but they can also just be a challenge that will leave both you and your child laughing.
Remember, the most important part of learning a language is communication. If your child has a slight accent, so what? I live in California and am surrounded by so many different accents. Our current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a great example of how little an accent matters. No matter what your opinion is of him, it cannot be denied that he has been successful actor and politician in spite of having a non-native accent.
Don’t put so much emphasis on perfection, but rather on your child’s communication skills. If they are speaking some Spanish, you have made quite an accomplishment. Have fun with language, and you’ll will be surprised at how much can be learned!