In a recent interview with Variety, talk show host Chelsea Handler said she wouldn’t have first lady Melania Trump on her show because “she can barely speak English” and they would have nothing to talk about.
Apparently Handler believes speaking English with an accent is a sign of intelligence deficiency. Yet her own snobbish comments are not only offensive, but also betray her ignorance and intolerance. Her underlying assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. A person’s accent has nothing to do with his or her intelligence.
Everyone Has an Accent
What is an accent? American Speech Language and Hearing Association (ASHA) defines an accent as “the unique way that speech is pronounced by a group of people speaking the same language.” Therefore, everyone speaks with an accent. Even among native-born Americans, someone from Texas speaks English with a different accent compared to someone from New York.
Science shows we humans acquired accents as early as six months old, before we even learn how to speak. That’s actually how we learn to speak our native language, by picking up sounds first from our parents, then from people around us. At a certain age, when we are efficient with our own language, we lose the ability to say or hear certain sounds that are missing from our native language.
This obviously presents a challenge when we learn a second language, especially a language that has very different stress, intonation, and a totally foreign sound. For example, I was born and raised in China. I moved to the United States 20 years ago to pursue a master’s degree. Even today, I still have a hard time pronouncing any word with “th” in it because there’s no equivalent of the “th” sound in the Chinese language.
As speech coach Joel Goldes explains, “Our brains really block us from hearing what we’re hearing. Until someone is taught to form the new sounds, they don’t hear them. That’s why a person can be in a country 30 to 40 years without losing their accent.” Science further proves that the older a person starts to learn a second language, the harder it is to reduce his or her accent.
An Accent Doesn’t Mean You’re Dumb
I have lived in the United States since 1996, but I still speak English with an accent after 20 years. I sometimes encounter people who think I’m not smart enough because of my accent, even though I earned two master’s degrees and have multiple professional certifications under my belt, including one of the most difficult to get—the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation.
Over the years, I tried many things to get rid of my accent, including joining a Toastmaster club, hiring a private tutor, and repeating after accent reduction tapes. None of these efforts helped reduce my accent by any significant measure, but they did help me become more understandable. More importantly, they helped me gain confidence in my ability to speak my mind. Today I’m a public speaker. I learned to embrace my accent and am determined not to let it distract me from communicating inspiring and powerful messages.
Melania Trump, an immigrant from Slovenia, moved to the United States in 1996 too. She was about 26 years old then. So it’s understandable that she speaks English with an accent, and she probably won’t be able to lose it. So what? Her accent should be the least of her or anyone else’s concerns, because it speaks nothing of her intelligence.
She can communicate in five languages, and she’s a successful entrepreneur. As the first immigrant first lady since Louisa Adams, she’s a powerful testament that our nation is a nation of immigrants. Remember, President Reagan said “Our strength comes from our own immigration heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up, Melania
Melania comes across as a shy and reserved person. But I believe she’s tougher than she looks. After all, it takes courage and strength to leave one’s family and friends behind and move to a strange country all alone. I encourage her to speak out more and often. She is in a commanding position to set an example for all Americans, native-born and immigrants alike.
I understand that public speaking can be a terrifying endeavor. My advice to her is: stop worrying about your accent. Instead, start speaking slowly and try to enunciate words. After a while, people will learn to focus less on your accent, and more on what you are trying to say. I also found that reading English poetry aloud helps because there is nothing like poetry to teach you about rhythm and intonation.
As for Handler, it’s her loss that she wouldn’t have Melania on her show. Handler and many on the Left who feared that America under President Trump would be an intolerant nation are right—except it’s them, the small-minded and prejudiced Left, who are making that happen.