Sometimes an accent can render a language sexy. Even elegant.
Imagine the swooning sighs in U.S. cineplexes when native Spanish speaker Antonio Banderas raspily uttered these lines in English in the movie “Interview With the Vampire:”
“I have never seen a vision, nor learned a secret, that would damn or save my soul.”
Or all the broken hearts whenever the Mexican-born Salma Hayek does panel in English on late-night TV talk shows.
Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case when native English speakers hold forth in Spanish. Like, say, Florida Gov. Rick Scott or former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
To know what I mean, press Listen above. I credit Scott and Bloomberg for the effort. But even a relatively fluent Spanish speaker like me has trouble making out what they’re saying.
Y’see, the accent issue is a two-way street. Last week, we reported that more native Spanish-speaking immigrants are feeling pressure to reduce their accents in English. To sound more “American.”
But, especially in a bilingual region like South Florida, shouldn’t native English speakers try to sound more “Latino” when they hablan español?
“To me, the gringo accent – the very typical “Mi nombre es Jared” – I mean, it drives me crazy,” says Jared Romey, a Miami-based Spanish language expert.
Romey’s a gringo, an American-born native English speaker. But he’s also the author of several books on the myriad dialects of Spanish, including “A Quick Guide to Cuban Spanish.”
Romey and his Puerto Rico-born wife, Diana Caballero, run a popular Spanish instruction website called SpeakingLatino.com. They say it’s certainly encouraging when gringos take the trouble to learn Spanish – and that folks can get by with a bad accent if their grammar and vocabulary are good.
Still, the couple concede it can be discouraging when gringos make little effort to properly articulate the language.
“Oh my God,” says Caballero, “you don’t have a fluent conversation with a person who can’t pronounce correctly. You need to keep stopping and correcting, or you just try to grasp what he’s trying to say.”
But Romey and Caballero say this is about more than being a nice gringo. In South Florida, it’s about being a smart gringo. Two-thirds of Miami-Dade County’s population is Hispanic, and Latin America is by far Miami’s largest trading partner. Based on his own business experiences here, Romey believes a good accent in Spanish is an ice-breaker – and a competitive edge.
“They just feel a closer relationship to you because you’re communicating with them at their level,” says Romey. “They’re just more comfortable doing business with you.”
Caballero adds that matters in bars as well as boardrooms – although single Latinas might tolerate ham-handed Spanish sometimes.
“It depends how good-looking the guy is.”
So for those of us who can’t get by on our looks, how do we improve our accents in Spanish? I need help too. I’m from Indiana – which means my inner Hoosier often hijacks my own accent. (And I’m pretty sure that irritates my Venezuelan wife.)
Romey says the most standard Latin American Spanish is Colombian. In that spirit I brought along and read some of Colombia’s most famous novel, “Cien Años de Soledad,” or “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel García Márquez.
“Muchos años después,” I began, “frente al pelotón de fusilamiento…”
Romey noticed right away that my r’s are too rounded, heavy and slow. They should bounce more nimbly from my mouth, like salsa steps. It was really noticeable when I read, “a la orilla de un río.”
“It’s actually ‘río,’” Romey said, replacing my weighty r with a crisp, darting consonant. “You need to put your tongue at the upper part of your teeth in the front, touching the top of your mouth, and just blow out. Río.”
I also carry vowel sounds too long. And I forget to pronounce my y’s as soft j’s. I sometimes pronounce “yo,” the Spanish word for “I,” like “Yo, homie.” It should sound more like “Joe.”
The point is, gringo accents are often so bad in Spanish because we’re speaking it the way we speak English. Don’t do that. Sounds in English are generally like long jumpers. Spanish sounds are like tap dancers. “Rose,” with an extended “o” versus “rosa” with a machine-gun “o.”
Caballero heard one more gringo foible.
“You were tense or trying too hard to do it correctly,” she said – a reminder that native English speakers, perhaps as overcompensation, often exaggerate Spanish pronunciation.
Such as when I read “fusilamiento.” That means firing squad – and the almost comical, syllable-by-syllable way I pronounced it can also kill a conversation.
“That is slowing you down,” Caballero said.
But I was reminded the best way to fine tune my accent is to just get out and hear elegant Spanish speakers like Romey and Caballero.
To know what I mean, press Listen above.