People don't like Boston accents
Is Hilaria Baldwin telling the truth about her Spanish accent?
Hilaria Baldwin is currently creating a lot of media discussion. She is accused of imitating a Spanish accent and adopting a Spanish name for decades, even though she grew up in Boston and never lived in Spain. Hilaria defends herself against these allegations: Her accent is sometimes stronger and sometimes weaker, depending on how much Spanish she speaks. She also had to take severe criticism for pretending to have forgotten the English word for cucumber. She attributes this to her nervousness during her first live TV appearance.
Could she tell the truth?
Studies of bilingual language use show that multilingual individuals typically speak one or both languages with a non-native accent. Even speakers who learn two languages from birth do not sound like native speakers in the language they use less often. This phenomenon can be observed in particular if they - like Hilaria - frequently switch between different language environments.
It has been proven that accents are not static, but change depending on how often speakers use their languages or how often they switch languages. Accordingly, Hilaria's changing accent is not uncommon.
So if she says that she spoke Spanish more recently, she will have a heavier Spanish accent. During her studies, however, she was mainly surrounded by English-speaking fellow students; it is therefore likely that their Spanish accent has become less pronounced or even disappeared over time.
This continuous change in accents has been very well documented in studies on bilingual language use. Studies also show that bilingual people often have difficulty retrieving individual words in the language they are currently speaking, da both Languages are enabled. This is especially the case when they're nervous - like Hilaria on her first live appearance on TV.
Accents give a sense of belonging
Accents are formed by their speakers and are linked in a complex way to identity and a sense of belonging. For bilingual people like Hilaria, the question of belonging can often be difficult, as they on the one hand feel part of their (in this case Spanish) family, but also see themselves as part of the society around them. They are mostly perceived as belonging to either one or the other group; in some cases they do not appear to belong to any group.
Hilaria has made a decision - she has given herself the Spanish name, adopted the Spanish culture and the accent that goes with it. It is very unlikely that she made a conscious choice to suddenly speak with a Spanish accent. If a language and the associated culture become more dominant, the accent also becomes more concise. If social circumstances and language use change, the accent will in most cases also change.
Do you want to sound "strange"?
It only takes a split second to determine if someone is a native speaker. As soon as people are revealed to be non-native speakers, their credibility is questioned, their intelligence and competence questioned. Often the slightest trace of strangeness in the pronunciation is enough to condemn speakers. It is therefore unlikely that someone will consciously choose to sound strange.
In fact, interest in Hilaria's accent shows that non-native pronunciation is perceived and generates undue attention. Accents give us a sense of who we are, where we come from and how we relate to other people. There is the allegation in the room that Hilaria cheated on her fellow human beings with a fake accent for decades. She is portrayed as an impostor; in fact, she is just a typical bilingual speaker. (Ineke Mennen, Lisa Kornder, 6.1.2021)
Ineke Mennen is Professor of Applied English Linguistics and Dean of Research at the Faculty of Humanities at Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz.
Lisa Kornder is a postdoctoral fellow in applied English linguistics at the Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz.
On the subject
Hilaria Baldwin: Spanish at heart
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