The Doc Project·Personal Essay

As a newcomer to Canada, should I try to lose my accent?

When Gretel Kahn was growing up in Panama, she wanted nothing more than to speak English like the actors in American movies. Her tongue, however, did not co-operate.

Journalist Gretel Kahn worries about being judged and lost opportunities because of how she speaks

Gretel Kahn in her home town of Panama City. (Submitted by Gretel Kahn)

UPDATE: This story was originally published in February 2020.

Since then, Myke Wilder's classes have moved online.

I grew up in Panama City and learned English in school. But even after moving to Canada in 2015, completing my studies in English and now working in the language, there is still something I can't quite shake off: my accent.

It's subtle but present. Despite years of forcing myself to sound like the people in American movies, my English is tinged with telltale sounds that give me away as a Spanish speaker.

And in my fifth year of living in Canada, I wonder: should I try to sound more Anglo-Canadian?

Gretel (and her brothers) have been learning English in Panama since they were kids. (Submitted by Gretel Kahn)

What's in an accent?

First I wanted to find out what an accent sounds like to the ears of native English speakers. To my surprise, there is research about what it means to speak English with an ESL accent. According to Dr. Marc Pell, a professor at McGill University's school of communication sciences and disorders, people who speak with an accent are perceived as less trustworthy than those without an accent.

Dr. Marc Pell is a professor at McGill University’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders. (Courtesy of Marc Pell)

"If you have an accent, any type of accent, according to the people that are rating and judging the person, they will consider you less believable," he explained.

So a Canadian English speaker will find another Canadian English speaker more trustworthy than someone with a non-standard North American accent. This can be mitigated if the accented speaker speaks with confidence, but Pell acknowledges that these subconscious biases can have consequences on people's lives.

"In terms of our jobs or employment opportunities, access to justice, whether it be, you know, being stopped by a police car because you're speeding or whatever, we're constantly being assessed in terms of whether we're believable," he said.

Wanting to fight against these biases, I wanted to make sure I knew how I could improve my accent — which led me to meet some people who do this for a living.

Reducing an accent

On a Thursday night I found myself in a class aimed at those that want to improve their English pronunciation and reduce their accent. It is led by Myke Wilder, an ESL teacher who offers affordable classes to immigrants.

Myke Wilder teaching an ESL class. (Gretel Kahn)

It started with tongue twisters that indeed twisted my tongue and showed my flaws in pronouncing certain English words. This was followed by repeating words that sound similar to each other and then attempting words that are complex for non-native speakers.

To my relief, I was not the only student in the class. There were four others, all of whom told me that they had difficulty communicating with others in English and wanted to improve their accents and pronunciation.

At the end of the class, I asked the teacher for his assessment of my accent. To my surprise, he didn't think I was that bad.

"Your English is really good," said Wilder. "If you came here and you said, 'Can you help me?' I would say no, you need a speech coach or a speech pathologist."

So, I did. I found a speech pathologist — Victoria Patenaude. She is based in Montreal but helps people all over the world with improving their accents.

Victoria Patenaude is a speech pathologist based in Montreal. (Courtesy of Victoria Patenaude)

Like me, Patenaude is a first-generation immigrant. Seeing her parents struggling to adapt in Canada with their accents led her to what she does now. She wanted to help people reduce their accents so they felt more confident speaking in English.

When I asked her about my accent, she said the same thing as Myke: that my English was good!

While I was flattered by what they both had to say, it also made me wonder: why was I so self-conscious about my accent if I sounded OK?

In fact, why was I so happy that I could blend in, that I sounded more American than Latin American?

Sounding like myself

I decided to meet up with another Panamanian I know in Canada, Alexa Cárdenas. Alexa and I went to school together in Panama City. So our accents were shaped within the confines of the same four walls.

Gretel and her friend Alexa both settled in Canada as young adults. (Gretel Kahn)

While our accents are very similar, Alexa has completely opposing views on her accent. In fact, she wants to have a stronger accent, an accent that clearly says that she is from Panama.

"With an accent, it would be easier to tell that I'm Latina," said Alexa.

"Since I started living in Canada and being more aware of imperialism from North America, in Latin America, I've been wanting to assert myself as Panamanian as much as I can," she said.

Suddenly, I found myself feeling self-conscious about the embarrassment I felt about my accent. Alexa made me realize that by trying to chip away at my accent, I'm giving away a part of who I am and where I come from.

Despite her insecurities, Gretel has pushed herself to speak English in public. Here she is giving a speech in a debate conference in high school. (Submitted by Gretel Kahn)

It is probably too late for me to have a stronger accent, but I am OK with that. I am OK with sounding like myself.

I would be lying if I said that I won't still try to put my best foot forward when speaking English. That's how people judge me. But maybe now, I'll try to not dissect every word I can't pronounce properly. Those words show that I am a Spanish speaker and I am proud of that. 

About the producer

(Submitted by Gretel Kahn)

Gretel Kahn is a budding journalist and recent graduate of McGill University, hailing from the hot and humid country of Panama. She recently completed the Peter Gzowski internship at CBC Montreal which instilled in her a fascination for audio storytelling. Now she is working at CBC Montreal as a researcher in current affairs radio. While new to journalism, Gretel has always been a storyteller, from the page to the stage. 

This documentary was produced with Alison Cook and made through the Doc Mentorship Program.


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