Recently I asked for suggestions for our planned ‘How to’ series of brief articles, and one of the topics that many people mentioned they’d like help with was how to improve your accent when speaking Italian.
Now I’ll confess, right out of the box, that I’ve been told many times over the years that I have an instantly-recognizable British accent when speaking Italian, this not being intended as a compliment. I assume the same is true for my other languages, as anyone I speak to immediately asks me where I’m from and, when I tell them, nods as if they’d already guessed.
I further confess that I have absolutely no idea how I could speak Italian (Turkish, Spanish, French, Swedish) in a ‘less-British’ way, which you’d think would be a shameful thing to admit for a professional language teacher.
However, I’ve interacted with, what, many thousands of Italian native speakers over the years (and a not-insignificant number of native speakers of the other languages I’m learning), and you know what?
Apart from occasionally mentioning that I have a strong accent when I speak their language, NOT A SINGLE ONE OF THEM has actually given me any useful tips about how I could improve. Typically the conversation will go something like this:
“Ah! You pronounced that wrongly, did you know? ‘Sj’ in Swedish is pronounced like this (the helpful person contorts their mouth while making an alien sound, a little like gas escaping). Oh, and there’s a word no foreigner can ever say: ‘sjuksköterska’ (‘nurse’)! Listen, it has the ‘sj’ and later a ‘sk’ (the helpful person contorts their mouth again – two gas ejections in sequence). Now you give it a try, and I’ll giggle.”
That’s about as helpful as it gets when it comes to feedback from laypeople, that is to say non-professional language teachers. However, I employ four full-time professional Italian language teachers at our school (all currently furloughed), many of whom have known me for over a decade and have heard me speak Italian on many occasions during that time. And NOT ONCE has any of them sat me down and offered to teach me exactly how to sound less ‘horribly English’.
Ditto with my lady wife, also a qualified language teacher and proud possessor of a brain the size of a planet, as they used to say about Marvin the paranoid android. I presume she’s well-disposed towards me after twenty-three years, yet does she have any useful advice? No!
In fact, when she says that word, ‘No!’, it always sounds so emphatic, as if I’ve asked for something outrageous. She pronounces it like I would say ‘hot’ (and with the implication that she’d rather die.) When I say ‘No!’, in contrast, it sounds more like ‘woe’ (so a diphthong rather than a single vowel), which allows it to be both polite and regretful in equal measure.
“O mio dio!” (Oh my God!) sounds abrupt and conclusive in Italian, like shooting someone three times in the head and stepping over their body to go spend time with someone less inconsequential. Whereas when a Brit or an American says “O mio dio!”, it’s more of a wail of despair. The diphthongs (‘eu mieu dieu’) convey emotion, whether positive or negative. Without them, Italians can sound clipped and rushed to us, while we tend to sound rather hysterical to them.
Anyway, has my beloved, any of my devoted employees, or any of the many, many other Italian teachers I’ve known over the years, ever pointed that out?
They have not.
Yesterday evening, Daughter No.2 arrived back home from medical school in Florence (in Tuscany – supposed home of ‘proper’ Italian). She and Baby Son were joshing about his Bolognese accent. Having been away for a month or two, and deigned to return, she now notices how parochial her sibling sounds. Not her monther, she adds politely (my wife, being bilingual Italian/Swedish, speaks Italian with a fairly neutral accent). Though, on reflection, her Italian grandfather sounds ‘Romagnolo’, which is ‘better’ than Bolognese, apparently. Though not by much.
So people can NOTICE accents, and laugh about them, I think we’d all agree? And perhaps it’s that fear of being laughed at which motivates some people (not me, particularly) to want to slough off their usual way with vowels, consonants and so on, and learn to sing a sweeter song.
Given, though, that there may be few, or no, people around to help you improve your Italian accents (we’ll exclude the more-than-willing but less-than-ccompetent), it might be worth asking the question I pose in the title of this article – why bother?
Does it matter than my lovely son sounds ‘Bolognese’? Not to me, who doesn’t notice. And because everyone he knows at school sounds basically the same, I’d suppose not to him either.
Does it matter to his friends that they speak English with an Italian accent, then? Again, I’d imagine not. Everyone in Italy speaks English with an Italian accent, which is my bread and butter.
So why should you or I worry, if we sound British, or American, or Australian, or Irish, or South African, or Kiwi? Why should we BOTHER to eliminate, or reduce, our accents when speaking Italian?
Next time I’ll write about ‘benchmarking’ your accent, so you know just how bad it is, and what the problems are, before you go about trying to improve it.
In the meantime, I’m planning to ask all my teachers and conversation partners these questions, starting with Turkish in just a few moments time:
1. Just how bad, on a scale from 1-10, is my accent when I speak your language?
2. What is it about the way I speak that makes me sound ‘English’?
3. How do you think I could improve my accent?
Let’s see what they say…
A lunedì, allora.
Here’s a final reminder about this week’s Christmassy, half-price ‘eBook of the Week’, Natale a sorpresa. At level B2 (upper-intermediate), it’s ideal for anyone with a few years of Italian under their belts. Especially as this week it costs just £3.99, instead of the usual £7.99.
It’s December and Christmas is coming! Normally Matteo spends the festive season with his family, but this year they’re visiting relatives in Australia. So it looks as if he’ll be celebrating alone.
Don’t forget to read/listen to Thursday’s FREE bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news – it’ll help improve your Italian accent, for free!