Just after my son started in primary school his teacher called me over one day as I was picking him up. Damn! In trouble already I thought. But no, it was simpler: “you know he is left handed?” she asked. Indeed I did know. I had noticed. He is my son.
She then asked me why he hadn’t a scissors for left-handers. I had to tell her I didn’t know the answer to that. After over twenty years in Spain (and I hope pretty good Spanish) I still speak with a distinctly foreign accent so she took a step back and started speaking very slowly. My Spanish was not good enough for her to understand what I was saying: or at least, that was what my accent was telling her. The reality was, in any language, I just didn’t know there were special scissors for left-handed people and that was what she had to explain to me.
It is curious how accent can make you appear dumb. Words, attitude, social norms can cover it up but it remains, when meeting people for the first time at least, a striking identifying feature and can often lead native speakers to view you in a negative fashion. Regional accents can, of course, within groups of native speakers, have the same effect!
As teachers we spend (or should spend) a lot of time on pronunciation and intelligibility is essential. Nevertheless, sounding like a “native” speaker is probably beyond the ability of most “non-natives”. That shouldn’t be a problem but as Robin Walker highlights in this post, perhaps native listeners also need to demonstrate less prejudice when it comes to “judging” a non native speaker solely on the basis of their pronunciation. Judgments based on skin colour or the shape of your eyes can be classed as racist: should we be equally carefully when sizing up a person on the basis of their accent? The speaker has to make an effort to be intelligible: but listeners may also need training to understand intelligibility.
My son remains left-handed: my Spanish accent remains deficient … but I can and have done more things in Spanish than I have in my “native” language. Maybe I just need the right kind of scissors.