Why Salma Hayek’s accent is sexy but the gringo accent isn’t

Antonio & Salma are well-loved for their accents. Mayor Bloomberg? Not so much.

The other day I talked about my accent and whether I should embrace it or continue to attempt to erase it. For the sake of brevity, (which I don’t think I quite succeeded at anyway), I edited the post before publishing and took out some other points I wanted to make.

One of the rabbits I didn’t chase down the path the other day, but will today, is the fact that the gringo/a accent in Spanish is often perceived as one of two things:

1. Ugly, (i.e. “That gringo’s accent is horrible. He’s butchering our language!“)

-or-

2. Amusing, funny, hilarious

Latinos born and raised in the United States who have difficulty speaking Spanish are often made fun of or criticized even more heavily than Caucasian gringos who try to learn the language. Jennifer Lopez, Cristina Aguilera, Erik Estrada and many other celebrities have taken plenty of flack in the past.

Yet native Spanish speakers with heavy accents in English are often considered “sexy.”

Examples?

Salma Hayek

Antonio Banderas

Sofia Vergara

And so the question occurred to me – why the double standard? It seems rather unfair, (and yet, even I admit that I would rather hear a native Spanish speaker speak English with an accent than a native English speaker speak Spanish with an accent.)

I decided to ask an acquaintance I made this past year, François Grosjean, a Professor of psycholinguistics and author of several books including, Bilingual: Life and Reality. I don’t know him in person but I discovered him via the fascinating articles he writes on Psychology Today and once E-mailed him questions I had regarding the phenomenon some bilinguals experience which feels somewhat like having a split personality. He happened to be working on an article on that very topic and asked permission to quote me. (The article: Change of Language, Change of Personality? is here. I’m quoted as “Bilingual 1.”)

And so, when I had this new question on my mind, I didn’t hesitate to contact Dr. Grosjean again. I asked:


…Why is it that when White/Anglo/”Gringos” speak Spanish with an accent, it is usually considered “ugly” sounding or “funny” – Yet it seems when native Spanish speakers speak English with an accent, it can be considered “sexy”…

I’m sure this can be said about other languages as well. If you asked Americans if they preferred to hear a native French speaker speak English with an accent or a native German speaker speak English with an accent, I believe the majority would choose the French speaker. The French accent in English is considered sexy or pretty, but the German accent is considered ugly and harsh.

Are these learned cultural preferences or are there scientific linguistic differences that simply make one scenario more pleasing to the ears than the other?

Dr. Grosjean gave me permission to share excerpts of his E-mail. He answered, in part:

“As for the other question: “are there scientific linguistic differences that simply make one scenario more pleasing to the ears than the other?” – I don’t have an answer. You’d expect that researchers would have examined this but I personally don’t know of a study. Everything you say is correct but how much is due to the way the dominant language sounds and how much to cultural preferences is simply not known.”

So there you have it – it’s still a mystery!

While I had Dr. Grosjean’s ear though, I also asked him what he thought of my dilemma regarding my accent. Should I erase it or embrace it? His opinion?

“I think the best thing is to accept it as it is. Your loved ones like you the way you are, with an accent, and that is what really matters. As for the others, hopefully, with time, they’ll put more emphasis on how well you speak Spanish and not on the accent that you have. In any case, the more you do speak Spanish, the more your accent will improve; so it’s a win win situation all the way, I think.”

Thanks to Dr. Grosjean for allowing me to quote him and for being so kind in answering my various linguistic questions. Check out his most recent Psychology Today post – it should hit home to many of you, (as it did for me!)

Falling in Love With a Culture and a Language.

(Image sources: Live at J&R and Eva Rinaldi.)

Erase or Embrace the Accent?

When I made the “Shit Salvadorans Say” videos, I never once worried while filming that my accent would be so gringo as to be a distraction – but apparently some thought it was.

Initial response to the videos was overwhelmingly positive and I was happy to have made people laugh – but then came the first negative comment about my accent, which, more than hurting my feelings, kind of left me dumbfounded.

“That lady doesn’t even sound like she’s Salvadorian, that’s the funny part,” read the YouTube comment.

I responded that I don’t sound Salvadoran because I’m a gringa. (I refrained from typing “duh” at the end of that response.) I chalked it up to one person obviously having a bad day and taking it out on me, however before I could shake it off and move on, more comments came in.

“Y’all don’t got the accent.”

(At least I “got” good grammar I retorted in my head.)

“I think the gringa was right on the money in what to say, but I can’t get passed the whole gringa accent,” said another.

Nice. A back-handed compliment. And then…

“The accent isn’t there.”

“Lo siento esto es una gringada! Cero Salvadoreño!”

“OMG! I’m Salvadorian and this is NOT how my family or I talk lol what part of El Salvador are you from?”

“She sounds white lol maybe she’s first generation American and didn’t learn Spanish well lol.”

“Sorry y’all sound too gringo.”

Every time I’d get an E-mail notification that a comment had been left, my heart would start to race – will it be a positive comment, (for there were an equal amount of people who loved the videos) – or a negative comment? Will it be more of the same or will they find something even crueler to say that will crush me? I finally decided to disallow comments on those YouTube videos because I started to obsess.

Now, YouTube comments are famously horrendous, and I’ve kept that in mind, but I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t made me self-conscious about my accent. I’ve been studying Spanish for twenty years now and I’m still not fluent. I make grammatical mistakes all the time, but my accent is one thing I thought I had conquered.

Although I knew I didn’t sound “Salvadoran” and that I wouldn’t be mistaken for a native speaker of any Latin American country for that matter, I never worried that I sounded “white” or “gringa” — at least not in recent years.

“You told me I don’t have an accent!” I said to Carlos after receiving yet another Youtube comment, and Carlos insisted very sincerely that I don’t. Perhaps he’s blinded by love, but then I think back on all the people over the years who have so enthusiastically complimented my Spanish – did they just mean it was good compared to other gringos?

“Wow! Your Spanish is so good!” I’ve been told in both Spanish and English – but what is “good” Spanish? Does the fact that I can do more than ask where el baño is make me a success?

Do I speak better than the white “abogados” and used car dealers on local Spanish-language channels whose mispronunciations make me cringe? Better than college girls who go to Cancun on Spring break and get drunk while wearing over-sized sombreros? Better than Dora the Explorer or Erik Estrada? What standard have I surpassed exactly?

As I read Roque Dalton poems aloud to Carlos in bed last night, asking him to rate my accent on a scale of one to ten, he asked me why I continue to sweat it. “Your accent is cute,” he said, taking the book from my hands and pulling me to him. I eyed him suspiciously, for “cute” is very different from “fluent” or “beautiful” or even “good.” A puppy chasing its tail is cute. A baby babbling gibberish is cute.

“Your accent is perfect,” he amended, and I noted his accent in English, the one I love so much, the one he makes no attempt to refine but which causes misunderstandings for him at fast food drive-thrus.

In the end, I realize, I have a decision to make. I can continue to try to erase my accent or I can embrace it. I’m not sure yet which way I’ll go.

What is your experience with having an accent? What is your native language? What is your second language? How do native speakers of your second language react to your accent? Do you embrace your accent or try to erase it?