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!“)


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.”


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.)


  1. Very interesting post.

    One observation I would make regarding the examples you provided is that both French and Spanish are romance languages. I attribute some of the “sexiness” you reference to this point.

    I’ve had people tell me in the past that I “sound nice” when I speak in Spanish (folks that don’t know me in person or otherwise). I don’t think I speak any differently in Spanish versus how I speak in English, so I am equally puzzled as to what makes people say that. Conversely, I have a very subtle accent when I speak English, but I’ve never had anyone tell me anything about the way I speak it, other than the rare “where is that accent from?”

  2. I have a THICK NuyoDominican accent. Some say it’s sexy. Some say it’s exotic. Some think it’s annoying. Some think I sound like Rosie Perez (mostly gringos). And then there are those who ask me to speak over and over again because, “It’s so cute!” I’ve learned to live with it but do find myself being more careful when I speak to certain folks, especially in business dealings. Then there is my dream of being on radio. The Georgia or LA radio market may not appreciate or understand my accent. I am so very New York. Pero que se va hacer? I am who I am.

  3. In the part of Texas where I grew up, a lot of gringos as well as people of other non-Latino backgrounds speak Spanish usually to serve Spanish-speaking customers/clients or because they work with Spanish speakers who don’t speak English well. For example, in my childhood neighborhood, which has a large Mexican-American and Mexican community, our neighborhood Pakistani owned gas stations or corner store clerks speak quite a lot of Spanish in order to tell prices in Spanish and serve customers. In this context, it is not unusual to hear choppy, and even pidginized Spanish. In other contexts it might be totally weird to hear Spanish spoken with a foreign accent. Are there lots of foreign Spanish speakers in El Salvador? Probably there are only regional accents, educated versus uneducated accents, maybe indio accents. But not a lot of commonly heard foreign accents. Maybe that’s why it is surprising or bothersome for some Salvadorans to hear Salvadoran Spanish spoken in this way…they may have never heard it like that before and that’s why there were so many comments on your video.

    Also in my childhood neighborhood, there are a lot of Mexican Americans who speak a limited amount of a very tejano dialect of Spanish and enjoy talking Spanish to each other (other tejanos) but avoid speaking Spanish to recent immigrants from Mexico because of the judgement and scrutiny. When we bolillos speak in Spanish we might get scrutinized negatively sometimes, but most often we are complimented in a way that 2nd+ gen estadounidense Latinos will never get complimented. They have ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ something that we have gained. I agree with you totally that they face more derision for weak Spanish than we do when we speak Spanish.

    I think as far as English with a Latin accent, Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz are sexy, but if you have a choloso accent or you are a short stocky indigenous looking person who says shair for chair and stuff, definitely there are a lot of social prejudices against these accents and the people associated with them. So there are layers to the stereotypes.

  4. I’m a New Yorker and it hurts my ears to hear Mayor Bloomberg speak Spanish. Envision nail on a chalkboard! The way he says “todos” sound like “toros”…I just can’t. Besides him I’ve never really been bothered by anyone trying to speak Spanish. I’ll have to pay close attention. In this city you hear all sorts of accents so I guess I’m used to it.

    Gloria on Modern Family….seriously LOVE her character!

  5. I know I always share examples that have nothing to do with spanish, but I can’t help but share this unfortunate experience. Your comment about latinos, who are native born Americans, getting flak for having an accent reminds my of my wife’s family.

    My Father-in-law is a son of a samoan chief and could at any time retake up that title back in Samoa if he wanted to. That said, he married an Australian and they raised their family in New Zealand. Since my wife and her siblings were half samoan, they of course wanted to know how to speak samoan, but every time they tried to learn her father and aunts would laugh at their accent. At the time they didn’t think about it, they just couldn’t help but think it was funny that they had such a ‘palangi’ accent.

    Unfortunately this kept them from wanting to learn more and the samoan culture has now died in our family after just one generation. Her cousins are the same, they can understand samoan only because her aunts married other samoans and so there was samoan spoken in the house, but they can’t speak it very well due to fact that her aunts laugh anytime their kids speak.

    I am not trying to sound judgemental, there was no way for them to know that this little funny joke would cause the loss of the culture so quickly, but it has. I feel bad because My kids are all one quarter Samoan, something I tell my kids to take pride in, but my wife and I can share that culture with them no more than any other outsider can share it.

    Anyway, its a very interesting post and thanks for sharing it! It is amazing how much an accent changes our perspective.

  6. Very interesting, and I like the way that people respond to your question. I don´t have an answer for you, but I´m enjoying this debate. BTW, I love it when I listened to you speaking spanish with a Salvadoran accent.

  7. Imagino que tiene que ver con los sonidos. A mi el español, el francés, etc tienen sonidos que son suaves y redondos, especialmente los vocales. Los americanos que me molestan cuando hablan en español son los que pronuncian los vocales de forma nasal. No es exactamente el acento mas los sonidos.

  8. wow, from what I’ve studied and perceived the “accent” debate goes on a different route. Or at least I have a very different viewpoint. Most of the time when a “gringo” speaks Spanish it is perceived as “good”, since he is making the effort to learn a foreign language. However, when a native Spanish speaker has an accent (in English), it is looked as they don’t speak properly. I wrote a whole paper about it and during my research/interviews this perception was what I saw the most. I still remember this one “gringo” guy who proudly told me in broken Spanish that he was hired because he was “bilingual” and how important it was for him to speak Spanish even with his accent. At the same time, native Spanish speakers told me how embarrassed they felt to speak English since they have an accent and were constantly being corrected, misunderstood, or laughed at. I guess it is only sexy to have an accent when you are Salma Hayek or Sofia Vergara!

  9. I find this post very amusing and very relevant! I’ve often asked myself these same questions. I can’t stand the “American-trying-to-speak-español-accent,” sorry, but I love hearing a French guy speak in English!

    For what it’s worth, Tracy, I’ve heard you speak and your pronunciation– and accent, is almost flawless. ;)

  10. This is a very interesting observation. I think part of the “sexiness” in the examples that you gave has a lot to do with the sexy people you chose. I wouldn’t mind watching Antonio Banderas speak in ANY language! Hehehe! In my personal experience, native Spanish speakers always ask me where I’m from. They can’t pinpoint my accent but they don’t think I’m from the US. I’ve had a lot of influences while learning Spanish and kind of created my own accent when speaking. I do make my husband and his mom laugh their arses of, though, when I speak “Salvadoran.” Also, when I make a mistake or don’t know how to say a complicated word, I almost butcher it on purpose and make native people laugh at me. :) Just embrace it and be proud that you have actually learned the language.

  11. A mi me encantan los acentos de ciertos paises y m[as que todo por la forma como utilizan ciertas palabras, pero es cierto que el acento latino siempre gusta. En cuanto al ingles, a mi siempre me gusto el acento californiano.

  12. I’m kinda in the same boat Lucky Fatima is in, here in Texas you have Mexican accent, Tex-Mex accent, American’s speaking with or wout an accent. I also find myself changing my accent depending on who I speak to. Great points Tracy.

  13. what an interesting topic. my mother has a super thick accent and I love it…my friends love it, too. and when she makes mistakes, we correct her. and admittedly, i’ve kind of always wanted an accent! ha. Is that crazy?? I suppose I could practice one!

  14. I enjoyed reading this post…you pose a unique view at how we “view” accents. I’ve always enjoyed listening to others who speak English with a foreign accent. Ironically I worked very hard growing up not to have an Spanish accent while speaking English…it was a little girls interpretation of how those with spanish accents were treated poorly and as if they were inferior. Sophia Vergara has single handedly made speaking with an accent very “sexy”…

  15. I could listen to Sofia ALL DAY! She’s so funny on Modern Family. I say keep on talkin’…to hell with the haters.

  16. So true! I love a Spanish accent, but dislike hearing an English one when someone is speaking Spanish. I feel like they butcher the language. I think it is because Spanish has such a beautiful rhythm that I can’t stand to hear it all chopped up. Thanks for bringing this up. I know next time I’ll try to be more tolerant.

  17. I agree with heart in hand….love Sofia Vargas….anything she says…I just wanna hear her talk. But I do cringe when I hear Spanish butchered…and my own son does it to me on purpose.

  18. Such good questions! I love linguistics!

    As for you loosing your accent, I totally agree with the professor, the more you use it the more you’ll loose it. Though, I think you sound adorable when you speak en Español!

  19. It’s all relative though depending on your cultural filter. This is a fascinating topic but even the question is biased. I personally find anyone trying their best to genuinely speak a non-native question endearing.

      • One more thing and why it’s really relative… An Argentinian sounds wildly different thana Cuban and a Long Islander sounds nothing like an Appalachian. Language is very rich, diverse and constantly evolving. Just like we don’t all like the same music well so it is with the timbre and inflections of accents.

  20. Well, I agree with the auothor when he says that Halma and Sofia have strong accents, but Banderas..sorry..doesn’t have a heavy accent. Plus he sounds very sexy, more like a French guy, not Spanish. Halma doesn’t even speak English fluently..she pauses between words very often, like every 2-3 words. I just watched her on Jay Leno a few days ago..

  21. There’s a common misconception about French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian (Romanian is in there, too) being “Romance” languages. This does not mean romance or love or ooh-la-la as we think of it. It is rather a reference to its evolution from the Latin language spoken by the Romans. Think of it as or Roman-ce.

  22. I am from a french speaking country. I am now studying in an english uni. Many people (asians and europeans) say that I have a turning on french accent when i speak english. I like it that way.

  23. I actually think discrimination based on accent affects all people. As many posters suggested, if the speaker isn’t sexy, the accent isn’t sexy. As a Southern Californian, I can tell you there is a deep resentment of Latinos who speak English with a Spanish accent.
    On the other hand, as a second-generation Mexican-American, I’m very self-conscious of my English accent when I speak Spanish. I don’t speak it like a native, but, you know what? That’s okay. With the Latino boom in America, my Spanglish accent will soon outpace Castellano.

  24. I know I’m in the tiny minority here but I think it’s mind blowingly sexy when girls speak Spanish with a North American accent. I have no idea why but hearing a woman from the US or Canada speak Spanish while retaining her accent is such an instant turn on for me. I’m thinking of women in high school and college primarily who are just learning Spanish and have a super thick accent and speak really slowly.

    It’s weird, the gringo accent is mostly hated but when it’s not hated it’s fetishized (is that a word?)

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