I read an article this week about a university student in England who published an online letter to her mum called “Dear Mum: I’m sorry I used to be embarrassed about your accent”. The letter was written by Shynee Hewavidana, a University of Cambridge student who has since been asked to speak on BBC Radio’s Asian Network after receiving a lot of attention from people who related to how she felt. The title immediately caught my attention from both a Speech Therapy viewpoint and on a personal level, as my mother also has a very noticeable accent. Truthfully, I’ve always admired her for being able to learn a second language as an adult and speak fluently in both English and French. Unlike Shynee I don’t recall feeling anything but pride when listening to my mother’ beautiful accent; a reflection of her cultural heritage. However, my mum has always felt very self-conscious about her English pronunciation. Throughout my life, I continuously heard her tell people a version of the following: “oh I am so stupid, I cannot speak English properly, I mumble”. As a child, it puzzled me and as an adult it made me feel frustrated.
Shynee’s letter to her mum reads as follows: “Accents are invisible. Or at least – I believed they were. Growing up in my household, I had become deaf to my parent’s strong Sri Lankan accents. I believed they sounded like me; eloquent, well spoken, articulate – and most importantly – English. Normal.” She goes on to say that she first became aware of her mother’s strong Sri Lankan accent at the age of 11 when her mother volunteered as a teaching assistant in her class and stumbled over some words. “It felt as if the class simultaneously all nudged each other. Nothing is ever truly invisible.” After this incident Shynee said that she often felt the need to ‘save’ her mother by correcting her English pronunciation of words.
Ironically, Shynee also found herself experiencing accent prejudice when she first arrived in Cambridge. She perceived her accent was being made fun of because it sounded like an Essex accent, which has been characterized on reality television as being spoken by someone who is a ‘bimbo’ or ‘uneducated’. In a case of history repeating itself she finally realized that she had tried to censor an integral part of who her mother was. This inspired her to write the letter to her mother saying: “To my mother: I am sorry. Your accent is a work of art, rich and complex, crafted over centuries. It is a story of your country, culture, history and what is everything special about Sri Lanka. I wish I had known that to proudly speak Engliah with an accent – whether it be an Essex or Sri Lankan – when you are told not to, is an act of bravery and defiance.”
At Change Your Accent we want people to feel proud of their accents, not embarrassed. Our clients have told us that their accents can make them feel anxious about contributing opinions and ideas at work, cause them to feel self-conscious in social situations and make them avoid public speaking. They have even told us that their accents have affected their self-confidence and made it more difficult to assimilate. Learning accent reduction strategies is a positive way to maintain your accent with pride but still make sure that you can be understood in every situation. And Mum, I hope you are reading this!
For more information about Accent Reduction and English Pronunciation contact Change Your Accent.