A few months ago, while I was doing the speaking part of a level test with a potential student, she informed me that not only did she need to become fluent in English, but that she needed to be able to speak with a British accent. When asked why, she told me that it was necessary for her job. I was quite surprised, I could not think of any job in Madrid that would require a non-native speaker to have such a perfect grasp of the language that they were even able to adopt the accent. I asked her if she was sure she didn’t just need to have good pronunciation to which she replied that she was an actress and a film company was looking to hire her only if she could imitate a native British accent at the interview. I tried to explain that while she could reach a very high level of English, even grammatically perfect, I highly doubted whether it was even possible for an adult with next to no language training to ever achieve this (obviously not the answer she had been hoping for).
Accents are a tricky subject, and let me just say for the record that I do not think they are as important as people make out. What’s more, we must differentiate between bad pronunciation and an accent. A high level of English with perfect grammar and style along with good pronunciation are attainable goals and enough to get you wherever you want in life. In fact, having an accent makes you interesting. Obviously there are cases where your accent may impede another’s understanding of what you are trying to say (take note, Ana Botella) but this is not usually the case. I am not suggesting you don’t have to make an effort to pronounce words correctly and try to speak “like an Englishman” but your accent is like your shadow and you will probably never get rid of it. I know people who have lived in the UK for 30 years or more and speak English better than many of the natives but the language they were born with will always leave its mark. Unless you begin learning from a very young age, your accent is set for life.
The same frustration comes when people demand their teacher has a particular accent. “I want an American teacher” or “I need to be taught by someone with a British accent”. Most people who request this think that there is such a thing as one English accent and one American, a kind of “one model fits all” and that if they have a British teacher, they will be able to understand anyone from the UK. In fact, there are so many different British accents that back home, even the people in the next town along from mine do not speak the same as me. This also applies to Spain. I think there is as much different between a Basque and someone from Seville (just watch “Ocho apellidos vascos”) as there is between a Basque and a Mexican. Getting used to just one accent actually has the opposite effect on your learning in that you begin to close your ears to any other way of speaking the language and your comprehension actually becomes worse. Many people say that when they go abroad, people do not understand their accent, but I would argue that it is because they don’t want to understand it, and this is very different. Once a language is spoken on a global level, people need to be more open and ready to listen to a variety of accents. After all, if we all spoke the same, English would be rather boring, wouldn’t it?