“Do you know what an accent is? A sign of bravery”

1. Karl Lagerfeld and accent

Karl Lagerfeld was German. He moved to Paris, France when he was 14 years old and finished his secondary school there. He studied the history of art in Rome, Italy for 3 years. He was a man of the world and spoke 4 languages fluently – German, French, Italian and English. However, he spoke French with a German accent and was proud of his German heritage. He said: “I [have] lived all over the world but I stay German because I am a German person”. 

Some times ago I was in the company of a charming Irish woman living in the UK. She said “ I kept my bold Irish accent all these years. Why shouldn’t I?”.

2. What is an accent?

We all have an accent. The way we speak is a reflection of the sounds in the surroundings we were born and grew up in. As one of my favourite comedians Trevor Noah said “ Accent is applying the rules of your native language to the language you speak”. Accents do not reflect intelligence or ability and also in no way show the fluency and mastery of the language. 

3. Why does an accent have a negative nuance? Unconscious bias.

An accent should not have any social significance. However, having a different accent indicates that you are an outsider and people tend to back insiders. So, even people without any prejudice naturally discriminate against people with a different/foreign accent. It is also difficult to process foreign-accented speech. Believe me, non-native speakers are fully aware of that and develop many coping strategies – speaking slowly, employing easy to understand words, using short sentences, confirming the understanding and using body language to enhance the meaning etc. 

Moreover, as everything in life, communication is a two-way process. The non-native person puts effort and years of hard work, embarrassment and frustration to learn the foreign language. Studies showed that people who speak foreign languages or are more exposed to different accents process non-native speech much easier. Negative attitudes towards a foreign accent is a norm for societies that speak one language. So next time, when we cannot understand the non-native speech instead of saying “I do not understand a word”, can we try “Please, can you repeat it again for me.” All learners of foreign languages are specifically taught to use this phrase when they cannot process/understand the sentence. 

4. Negative perception of accent. Conscious bias.

Society perceives different accents in different ways that arise from social class, culture, race, gender, nationality, education etc. Studies showed that people tend to judge the abilities of people based on their accent. If you speak with a “non-standard” accent you are viewed as less intelligent, less competent, less suitable for higher-status jobs and less likely to be believed. In a trial a person with a so called “posh” accent was perceived as more intelligent than the person without it even though they were saying identical words. Studies also showed that people above 40 are more likely to judge a person with a non-native accent as less competent and less hireable. 

5. Let’s celebrate accents!

I dread the question “Where are you from?” asked with arrogance, superiority and a deep belief that you must answer immediately. At this moment I know that I have been stamped as an outsider and as my friend says  “Your credibility is ruined. What you say is less important than how you say it.” You are not seen from the point of view of how far you have come, what you have achieved or how able you are but only by the gap between your speech and an ideal native speaker. 

However, as a former marathon runner I know that changing attitude is a long and difficult road but every step counts. 


  1. Никога не съм се замисляла,че акцентът може да е повод за дискриминация на хора.Чудесен и интригуващ текст,който ме накара да да стигна до извода: важно е съдържанието на комуникацията,а не акцента.Благодаря ,Нина !

  2. I love this article as I never thought about accent this way, and I feel inspired to embrace and be proud of my Brazilian accent even more. thank you Nina for such a great reflection!

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