Accents may at first seem unimportant, even superficial. After all, it’s what you say that matters and not the way you say it.
Umm…there may be more to it than that, certainly if Eliza’s experience is anything to go by.
For me, one of the refreshing things about speaking another language is escaping the usual prejudices based on the way you talk. Even if you speak the language very well, it is difficult to pick up the equivalent sociolinguistic markers that betray you as being working class, aristocratic or somewhere in between, as coming from a rich bourgeois family in Paris or small village in the middle of the vast French countryside.
However, the initial excitement at escaping judgement gave way to the realisation that the way you talk say a lot about you, your background and experiences. That in renouncing your mother tongue you lose a part of who you are.
In France, I am ‘foreign’. Not even English. Just foreign. People seem to have trouble placing my accent when speaking French. I’ve been called everything from Russian to Spanish, German to Eastern European!
When I studied Spanish at university, I spent at year living in Madrid. During this time I was determined to sound as Spanish as possible and picked up the accent pretty quickly – if someone took for a Spaniard I jumped around for joy for a good few minutes. However, several years after finishing uni and moving across the channel, I still hadn’t quite manage to pull off all those sexy zees and zats and started to despair.
Would I every truly fit in and feel French?
And, then one glorious day, I simply decided to stop caring. Don’t get me wrong, living in France I think it is important to speak good French and I would like to think I’m pretty bilingual. Yet, I stopped wanting to be something I’m not. I’ll always be English, however much I try to change it (and I’m not sure I do!) I’ve now fully reconciled myself with the status of a Brit in France – especially since being told how charming a slight English accent can be. It certainly seems to work for Jane Birkin, so, why shouldn’t it work for me too?!