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Do you feel insecure about your accent, or your bilingual child’s accent?

Updated: Feb 1



Table of Contents


  • My own experience as a trilingual person

  • Why It's Actually Totally OK To Have An Accent, And How It Might Actually Be a Good Thing

  • My experience with accent as a parent raising trilingual kids

  • Why You Should Avoid Comparing Your Children to Other Bilingual Children

  • Conclusion

Hello everyone!


Today, I’d like to talk about something that I’ve personally felt insecure about, both for myself and for my children.


And I know it’s something that concerns lots of parents who are trying to raise bilingual or trilingual kids, or even just people in general – and that something is... Accent.


According to one dictionary definition, an accent is “a distinctive way of pronouncing a language, especially one associated with a particular country, area, or social class”.


Even monolinguals worry about their accent – many public figures in the UK, for example, have talked about how they’ve felt pressured to tone down their regional accents in order to sound more professional or to fit in.


If you’re someone who speaks a second language, you might occasionally worry about how good your accent is and, crucially, how people perceive your accent.


And if you’re a parent raising a bilingual or trilingual child, it's more than likely that the following doubts have crossed your mind:


Is my child’s accent good enough?


Can people understand my child?


So, in this blog post and the accompanying YouTube video, I’d like to share with you my own experience and thoughts on this subject, both for myself as a professional translator and interpreter working in the UK, and as a parent raising my kids to be trilingual in English, Mandarin and Russian.


I’d like to share with you some of the key lessons I’ve learnt, which I hope will be useful to you, too.


My own experience as a trilingual person


For those of you who don’t already know, I was born in Shanghai, grew up in Hong Kong, and moved to the UK as a 17-year-old in 2003.


When I arrived in the UK, I already spoke decent English; although I have no idea what my accent sounded like back then, I imagine it must’ve been quite different from how it sounds now.


Anyway, over the 20 years I’ve lived here, I’ve received countless comments about my accent. Some people told me I sound very British, some told me that I don’t sound British at all… It’s all very confusing and can make you feel somewhat... self-conscious.





And that’s just my accent when I speak English!


I also speak Mandarin as a non-native speaker. Having grown up in Hong Kong, I consider Cantonese to be my mother tongue, although I’m fluent in Mandarin – I am a qualified Mandarin teacher, interpreter and translator and have been using my Mandarin language skills for work for over a decade.


But until fairly recently, I always felt kind of self-conscious about my accent.


I remember years ago, a friend of a colleague of mine told me that she could tell straightaway from my accent that I was from Hong Kong, and I remember feeling a bit embarrassed or even ashamed.


But that person wasn’t even being critical or anything like that – it was just my own feeling of insecurity that made me react that way!


Since then, numerous mainland Chinese people have actually commented on how good my Mandarin was, despite the fact that I have what I perceive to be a noticeable accent.


Why It's Actually Totally OK To Have An Accent, And How It Might Actually Be a Good Thing


It made me realise a few things.


Firstly, we’re almost always the worst critics of ourselves. Most people who know you probably do not give your accent a second thought. In another blog post, I talked about the "spotlight effect" - the tendency for individuals to overestimate the extent to which others notice and pay attention to their appearance, behaviour, or performance in social situations.


“You'll stop caring what people think about you when you realize how seldom they do.” - David Foster Wallace


Secondly, having a regional accent is totally normal!


I’ve now noticed that lots of mainland Chinese people actually have an even more pronounced accent than I do, because of the region they come from.


While there’ll always be judgmental people out there who make not very nice comments about others’ regional accents, the vast majority of people simply DO NOT CARE.


And in fact, having a regional accent can be an ASSET that gives you character and makes you more memorable.


Take the actor James McAvoy, for example. I actually didn’t realise he was Scottish until I heard him speak in an interview.




That voice, that face... Need I say more?




Would you want him to start talking like… say, King Charles...?


You get my point. Life would be so boring if everyone sounded the same!


Another key lesson I’ve learnt is that you simply CANNOT control what people think or say about your accent, or how they perceive your accent and what it says about you as a person.


And according to Stoic philosophy and even just folk wisdom, you shouldn’t worry about things beyond your control.


Focus on what you can control.


And what you can control is this: work on improving your pronunciation so that your speech can be easily understood by speakers of that language.


Language is ultimately about communication.


Of course, you don’t want your pronunciation to be so bad that people really struggle to understand you. But as long as people can understand you effortlessly or 95% of the time, you can be sure that your pronunciation is fine.


So, now, after living in the UK for 20 years and working as a language professional for more than a decade, I can finally, hopefully...


Stop. Worrying. About. My. Accent!





And I hope you will, too.


My experience with accent as a parent raising trilingual kids


Now, let’s move on to my experience as a parent raising trilingual children.


Believe it or not, I received the first-ever comment about my children’s accent before they were even born!


It happened after I got my first job as an in-house copywriter for Christie’s, the auction house. I got the job through a multilingual recruitment agency.


After getting the job, the agent who helped me get the job and I went for a coffee together. At the time, I was preparing for my wedding.


When I told the agent that my then fiancé was Russian, her reaction was - get this:


“Haha, your children will have the funniest accent ever!”


Uhh, okay…?





This was 12 years ago.






If you’re a parent raising a bilingual or trilingual child, chances are people have made comments on your child’s accent, or you might just be generally concerned about your child’s accent.


I know… I really understand.


Why You Should Avoid Comparing Your Children to Other Bilingual Children


For me, the thing I struggle with most is trying to avoid making comparisons with other families.


Let’s take one of my best friends, for example.


We met through work more than 10 years ago and have stayed in touch over the years. She’s Chinese and lives in London with her Chinese husband and their daughter, who’s now in third grade.


The daughter speaks excellent Mandarin with an almost flawless accent.


Every time we’re together, I feel kind of bad about my kids’ Mandarin, which is… Well, very "English"-sounding...?


I felt this very acutely when a friend of mine came to London for a visit earlier this year.


While she was impressed that our kids are trilingual, she thought that their Chinese accent was hilarious, and would mimic the way they spoke in a funny way in front of the kids.





For parents raising multilingual kids, comparing yourself to others can be the most demotivating thing ever.


It’s so hard to avoid, but you must try to avoid it for your own sanity!


Remember: everyone’s circumstances are different.


Let’s go back to my Chinese friend in London, for example.


Her daughter has two Chinese parents who speak Chinese at home. They’ve had long holidays in China where full immersion was possible.


Our kids’ home life and family circumstances are completely different!


“Comparison is the thief of joy.” - Theodore Roosevelt

My advice to parents is this: do not fret over your child’s accent.


What I said about adult language learners earlier in the video also applies to parents raising multilingual kids: focus on correct pronunciation.


Ask yourself this question: can other people understand what my child says?


This is the only thing you need to focus on.


If people can understand them most of the time, their pronunciation is fine.


And if other people struggle to understand them, work on improving their pronunciation, and you’ll gradually see an improvement.


Also, don’t forget that their accent will change and evolve over time!


About two years ago, an Indian family moved into our area, and I remember thinking back then that the children had a very noticeable Indian accent - nothing wrong with it whatsoever, but it was something that I noticed.


A few months ago, I bumped into this family again, and I was very surprised at the extent to which the children had lost their accent - they now sound almost completely British!


Conclusion


In conclusion, I think we can all take a deep breath, and stop worrying about our accent and our child’s accent.





In fact, let’s take it one step further.


Let’s actively EMBRACE our accent as something that makes us different, that makes us who we are.


Our accent is a reflection of our origins, our heritage, our history.


For both adult learners and children, my advice when it comes to speaking a language is to focus on two things:


  1. Fluency

  2. Good-enough, easily comprehensible pronunciation


The ultimate purpose of language is communication; if you can speak FLUENTLY and pronounce words in a way that another speaker can EASILY understand you, congratulations – you can communicate in that language, and that’s something to be really proud of.


Thank you so much for reading today’s post!


Also just a little reminder that I’ve recently given my book, Bilingual and Trilingual Parenting 101, an update.


For this edition, I’ve cleaned up some typos and grammatical errors from the first edition and added a whole new chapter dedicated to reading and writing.


There’s also a QR code that allows you to download a cheat sheet with key points from the book for free!


The paperback version also has a more contemporary, attractive layout that I hope my readers will enjoy.


It's also available in Audiobook format for those of you who enjoy listening to educational content on the go!


Thank you to you all.


Please share and comment, and I’d love to hear from you:))




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