When I moved to the Netherlands to study at one of the many English-taught university programs offered, I was welcomed by students from all over the world. However, when socializing and speaking to a group of local Dutch students, I heard the remark: “Wow, your English is really good for an Italian!” When I asked for further explanations, they just replied “Oh, you know, because you don’t have an accent.” That comment stuck with me due to its superficiality. In Italy, nowhere near as much attention is paid to teaching English conversation skills, or so-called ‘proper pronunciation,’ as in the Netherlands. All the members of my family back in Italy have an accent when speaking English (if they’re even able to speak it at all). Trying to single me out as ‘one of the Italians with no audible accent’ was just so shallow, as it ignored the nuances of second language learning and my experience as an international student.
I was born in Paris, but lived in the Southwest, near Bordeaux in an Italian community that spoke a Neapolitan dialect with a bit of Sicilian and Corsican thrown in. At school our prof was only interested in Shakespeare so when I came to England at the age of 19, well guess what? I could not understand the people around me.
Anyway, determination and utter focussing on my pronunciation (hours in front of the mirror having composed sentences with th) and years later I finally went into nursing. However, it became apparent that something in the way that I spoke was rubbing people’s back up the wrong way. After some illuminating points from my colleagues, I had to change the intonation on some words as I sounded harsh; an intense awareness on my pronunciation got me there. It was the tone in which I said for example: No! I don’t think so. In an English intonation the ‘no’ is soften by elongating it a bit ‘no-o’, and ‘I don’t think so’ both ‘I’ and ‘so’ are lowered in tone so to soften it up.
After many years here, and in some companies the questions about having an accent are interesting: am I Welsh? Scottish? Scandinavian? Or even Dutch. Not one bit of French or Italian!
Interestingly, after lacking contact with the French language for a while, I had to work on my intonation to help me sound French again. Oh! I almost forgot, I have also been told I have a southern English accent; cant hear that!
So I am northern Italian, which is already a bit of a strange accent for Italy (long vowels, many consonants fall, etc.), then I moved to England and lived first in Yorkshire where my best friend is from, and then in Oxford, but with two Irishmen and a Scot in the house, and then I met my future husband who is a Welshman raised in Norfolk. The result? After four years in England, I developed what has been recently defined by a friend of mine a ‘Eurotrash’ accent, with bits of Irish, Northern, Scot pronunciation scattered here and there across my fake-RP.
That said, I love English Northern pronunciation and every day that passes I am more and more tempted to ditch the stupid RP and just go for my northern mash!