Foreign accents have helped Arnold Schwarzenegger, Melania Trump, Donnie Yen and Arianna Huffington
Updated: September 17, 2017
That Indian accent is now de rigeur.
Just ask Priyanka Chopra. Clad in a stunning Balmain feathered gown, the “Quantico” actress presented talkshow host “John Oliver” with the best variety talk series Emmy. Despite the Hollywood stereotype against Indian English accents, the Bihar-born “Quantico” actress spoke the way she was raised–as she always has– and won Twitter.
She’s not the first to own her roots. For instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger will narrate “Wonders of the Sea 3D,” an upcoming 85-minute ocean documentary. A Hollywood action hero in his own right, Schwarzenegger’s Austrian-accented voice hasn’t always been his biggest asset: the former Celebrity Apprentice host says he was told by Hollywood agents his accent was a hindrance to his acting career.
But the Governator’s latest turn as narrator is a sign that foreign accents are starting to matter less. Chopra has found fame playing an all-American FBI agent— Indian accent included— on “Quantico,” while Chinese actor Donnie Yen’s Cantonese-inflected English didn’t stop him from starring as a wizened warrior-priest in “Rogue One.” A strong Greek cadence didn’t prevent Arianna Huffington from becoming a major player in the New York media world, and Slovenia-born First Lady Melania Trump has spoken in front of major TV audiences, most recently reading “Party Animals” by Kathie Lee Gifford at the White House Easter Egg Roll.
And being rude about an accent is no longer cool: just witness the backlash against supermodel Gigi Hadid when she jokingly mimicked Melania Trump’s voice at the 2016 American Music Awards. Reps for Chopra and Trump didn’t immediately return request for comment. Huffington had no comment. A Schwarzenegger spokesperson referred Moneyish to the Governor’s 2009 commencement speech at the University of Southern California, in which he talked about how his once-derided accent became an asset.
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This acceptance of accents extends beyond public figures. “Ten years ago, we’d hear from clients that accent modification was something they felt was expected” to succeed at work, says John West, head coach at New York Speech Coaching. Now, that’s that’s happening much less, he says, and instead his clients ask them to help them learn to speak more clearly — accent and all. Of course, being able to communicate clearly and having an accent aren’t mutually exclusive. “There’s beauty and nuance in accents…it’s not about stripping one’s sense of identity away,” says West.
Harvard doctoral candidate Myriam Gharbi first moved to America in 2013, and says that her French-Arabic lilt generally hasn’t been a hindrance. “People have mainly reacted positively and usually the different accent makes them want to know more about where I am from,” says Gharbi, who grew up in Africa, Europe and Asia. However, there have been situations where she became overly conscious of how she pronounced certain words. “That sometimes made the conversation I had with people less spontaneous,” she says.
Accent modification isn’t cheap. Individual sessions with West begin at $4,800 and can involve anything from 12 to 36 hours of coaching. Some clients see a change in as little as an hour, while there are those who drop by monthly for years. His firm offers group training classes from $595 for five weeks.
Sometimes though, it’s better to let things be. As Huffington, quoting German-born Henry Kissinger, likes to say “In American public life, you can never overestimate the advantages of incomprehensibility.”
This story was updated on September 17, 2017.
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