An enormous wave of water approaches us and we sit on our balconies, in blissful ignorance, sipping our tea and munching on our perfectly crunchy, perfectly creamy crackers. If the Egyptians knew the red sea would have destroyed them, they would not have run into it. They underrated the challenge that stood before them, and it engulfed them completely. Deservedly.
Style, along with the appreciation of it, is a very relative phenomenon but it is quite striking what people find stylish; shoes, clothes, even things as vain as accents! For many years, people have commented on the evident association between accents and social class. It is commonly perceived that only the noblest, the best educated and generally the wealthiest of individuals are privileged to speak English with an accent that is not significantly impacted by their tribal affiliation but simulates the speech patterns of native English speakers. This assumed ‘superior’ accent is referred to, by linguists, as Received Pronunciation.
Received Pronunciation has catalyzed an enormous cultural conflict, and has been the causative agent of numerous instances of ill-feeling among different sectors of even the British society. Social climbers anxiously desire to speak with this highly esteemed accent that, as estimated by Peter Trudgill in 1974, only 3% of the British population were fluent in. This desire to join the aristocracy remains dominant today, and many people actively endeavor to disjoin their social backgrounds from the way in which they speak; thus instigated a disturbing identity crisis among youth.
The gravity of this problem has recently risen to its very peak in countries such as India, where a culturally attenuating process, called accent neutralization has been recently introduced. Accent neutralization, according to Wikipedia, is defined as “a systemic approach for learning or adopting a new accent”. While some Indians argue that it is a direct attempt to dilute their Indian accent, others see it as an opportunity to learn about Received Pronunciation and to thrive socially. Kiran Desai, a veteran accent trainer, argues that accent neutralization has negligible impact on the mother tongue. She feels that as employees are simply taught to “get rid of mother-tongue influence” on their English, accent neutralization does not pose a threat to the actual mother-tongue. As a result, a speaker would become more eloquent in English, and will be able to speak with a more polished, accurate, and most importantly beneficial pronunciation of words in English.
However, there is evidence that accent neutralization can trigger a chain of beliefs and attitudes which can quickly lead many languages to extinction. The popular example of Akhil, an Indian man who works in the call centre industry justifies this fear. As call centres now push for accent neutralization, Akhil’s work has pushed him into what seems like a challenging identity crisis. This young man has changed his name to Sean, and has endeavoured to completely discard his Indian accent. It is therefore worth considering that as many adults spend a notable percentage of their time in their workplaces, where it seems accent neutralization is the new vogue, they are likely to abandon certain slang derived from their mother tongue and therefore lose touch with their indigenous language.
In any case, I feel that it is worth considering that if accent neutralization can help people realize that their native languages are just as marketable as the foreign ones they have been forced to adopt, it can serve as an amazing tool in promoting both foreign and indigenous languages. If people are taught to polish up both their proficiency in English and in their mother-tongue, a remarkable balance can be struck between these two languages. The example of Maori, an official language of New Zealand, buttresses this. Only 30 years ago, less than 20% of the population of New Zealand understood enough of the language to be deemed native speakers. However, after the Maori Language Act was passed in 1987, the language began to regain its social prestige. Unlike previously, it is now taught at schools and holds an ever-growing sentimental value in homes today. According to Statistics New Zealand, 21.3% of the population could hold conversations in Maori in 2013.
The outstanding success of New Zealand in saving the Maori language can serve as an inspiration to other countries with a similar identity crisis. One of such countries is Nigeria, where only the most basic slang are part of the diction of the high class, and it is perceived that youth from wealthy homes lack fluency in their indigenous languages. A notable majority of Nigerians try and more often than not, fail to adopt a foreign accent to speak to people who they feel belong to a higher social class than they do. We hear it all the time on the radio and on television and it often feels out of place.
What feels even stranger is the association of local accents with low social class, and not high social class. Why can’t the richest people be the most culturally grounded? What stops us from believing that someone wealthy can be fluent in an indigenous language? Why is there such a huge demand for people who have American and British accents? Why not accents from other countries; other African countries perhaps? We are African. Why don’t we take pride in what we possess? This enormous wave of trouble still rapidly surges towards us. It comes to overthrow our pride in our culture and indigenous languages and the accents they bring with them.
I do not propose that there is anything wrong with speaking proper English but I am particularly irked by the idea that it has to be at the expense of our mother tongue. However, we seem to be sitting on the sea shore, trying to stimulate this wave to swallow what we have left of our culture just so we can bee “stylish.” We fail to realize that when it comes to life or death, stylishness does not matter. This is life or death; life or death of a culture so diverse that it constantly leaves spectators in awe of its richness.
The question that arises, therefore, is: how do we combat this problem?
– By Similoluwa Aluko