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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.)

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