Today I went to a computer hardware shop with my wife to buy a birthday gift for my 8 year old cousin’s daughter.
We went in, and I walked straight up to the 3 shop assistants standing in the middle of the showroom having a chat, and I asked them if they had MP3 players in stock.
When I asked the initial question, I spoke with the American accent – simply because I’ve been doing a lot of American pronunciation practice lately and my “standard accent” (it’s my way of describing a non-native English speaker’s accent when they don’t pay particular attention to the way they speak) has changed over time.
I mean – there was a time in the early stages of my General American Pronunciation learning mission when I didn’t sound anything like an American outside my practice sessions. Now that I’ve spent almost a year and a half on learning the American pronunciation, the American accent has become my second nature, and it shows when I speak with the locals here in Ireland while going about my daily business.
Now, going back to my experiences in the hardware shop – as I was looking at the MP3 players and listening to what the shop assistant was telling me, I started getting an impression that I was being treated with slight contempt. The way I saw it, I wasn’t asking for an expensive, fancy gadget like iPod or iPhone, so the shop assistant in question wasn’t really that interested in treating me like a VIP.
Well, not that I needed some VIP treatment anyway – it’s just that it would be nice not to be judged by what you’re buying, isn’t that right?
So, needless to say, I found myself winding up during the conversation and eventually I was quite annoyed with the shop assistant.
The worst comment came in the very end when I and my wife spotted some cute earphones and I asked the shop assistant if these ones could be plugged into the MP3 player we’d been looking at. Guess what her response was? “Well… Yes, they’re for listening to music!” Basically the underlying message was – “You moron, don’t you know what earphones are meant for? Of course they can be plugged into an MP3 player!”
I guess I don’t have to tell you how pissed off I was! 😡
I merely asked a question to clarify whether these particular earphones are definitely going to work with the simple MP3 player we were getting because we’ve had some experiences previously with iPod earphones which don’t work with other devices.
After the treatment given by the shop assistant serving us at the checkout, however, I started feeling like a completely incompetent idiot who doesn’t know a thing about modern technology! And by the way – even if I didn’t, isn’t any shop assistant’s role to be as helpful as possible without any judgment involved?
Anyway, it’s beside the point because I was using this whole experience just to make you understand how agitated I became while communicating with the shop assistant in English, so all in all I was in quite a stressful situation.
Guess what happened with my English pronunciation?
It simply reverted back to my standard accent – a mix of East-European and Irish pronunciation, and it happened because I was really stressed out and my whole attention was focused on the situation and the person I was speaking with instead of my own speech.
You see – the thing is, when you learn to speak with a particular accent, you have to make sure you pronounce words in a certain way. Over time you have to pay less and less attention as you do that, and eventually you reach a stage where you can speak fluently with your target accent; however, when you find yourself in stressful situations, your mouth may revert back to the way it’s MOST comfortable speaking in English.
And here’s a thing to consider – I’d been speaking in English with my hard foreign accent ever since I was a kid, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this kind of a speech has still remained deeply wired in my subconscious!
Also, had I been trying to put on my American pronunciation while trying to remain calm during the slightly humiliating conversation with the shop assistant, I would be risking running into fluency issues.
Well, it’s not that easy to focus on both – your pronunciation and WHAT you say when you’re stressed out, and to be honest with you – reverting back to my foreign accent is actually a very powerful technique in order to maintain my fluency!
So, you may as well embrace the same approach when dealing with stressful situations, and the main message of this blog post is:
It’s totally fine to revert back to your foreign accent even if you know that you can speak with a decent American (or British) pronunciation!
Thanks for tuning in,