Accents, accents accents. Just when you think you can pretty much understand your Yucatecan neighbor and you are feeling more confident about your language skills, you fly to Mexico City for the weekend and–boom!– you have to try to understand the chilangos! Or even worse, you catch a charter flight to Havana and delve into the world of no “s” anywhere in the sentence, and a “guagua” or “qué bolá, asere?” coming at you, and you feel like you are anywhere but a Spanish speaking country. Once you finally get the book Spanish down, and maybe some street Spanish, that is when the real challenge and frustration begins. People speak differently. People use different expressions depending on where they are from, and people have very different accents.
I always like to encourage my students who are learning Spanish to put themselves in the shoes of someone learning English. Think of all our different accents. All you have to do is spend a night at Hennessey’s Irish Pub on Paseo de Montejo and you will get an array of accents; it’s a sort of United Nations of English speakers all in one place. And those accents get thicker as the night goes on. One of my recent projects is teaching English communication skills to Mexicans working at a call center based here in Merida. They receive calls from all over the United States. We are currently in our listening module and when I asked them what their biggest challenge is when speaking on the telephone with US Americans, they all say it’s the accents. Apparently the southern accent is a doozer to understand over the phone.
In light of my current work with accents and creating lessons to hone in listening skills, I have been extra sensitive to the way people talk. I happen to be writing this article from San Francisco, California and surprisingly enough, I would say about twenty-five percent of the people I have interacted with here have more or less my accent: a California accent. 75% of the people I have interacted with have a very different way of speaking. Many people I have encountered here speak English as a second language, so that just adds on to the layers of accents.
Essentially learning a new language is learning how to communicate all over again. Communicating effectively greatly depends on how good of a listener you are. When you can’t understand what people are saying, communication breaks down–or doesn’t even start. In order to train yourself to understand Spanish in all settings, you must listen to as many different accents as possible. In doing this, you will train your brain to recognize words even if some letters are missing or if the intonation is in another part of the word. The best way to do this is to listen to short (1-3 minute) audios or videos of people speaking from various countries. If you have a transcript of the audio or video file, you will be able to pinpoint the word you just can’t get and see it in writing. Even if you don’t understand what the words mean, you will soon be able to understand what was said and then you can look it up and add it to your vocabulary list. Training your ear to understand different accents will help you improve your language skills immensely. Will it put you out of your comfort level and make you want to pull your hair out sometimes? Absolutely. But keep trying. Remember my motto of language learning in the words of Colin Wright: if you don’t feel stupid half the time, you are probably not doing it right!
By Stephanie Carmon for TYT
Stephanie Carmon, “language lover” is an English and Spanish language professional with over 18 years of experience teaching and providing clients with effective communication skills. She works both online and in person with companies and individual learners and from Mexico, Russia, U.S. and Canada as a freelance language consultant, translator, interpreter and teacher. She currently lives in Mérida, Yucatan.
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