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I have been living in Germany for almost 10 years now and despite good command of both written and spoken German I have a noticeable accent and my texts are not absolutely perfect. I have noticed many times that an average German often judges you by your accent.

By "average" I mean "having an average education level", somebody who has just finished a professional training in Germany and hasn't been exposed to a multi-language community common now for university campus or big international companies.

In most cases this judgement is somewhat deprecatory unless you have an american accent (I don't). This does not necessarily reflect in mistreatment or mocking, not at all, but just a transient indulging smile is enough to feel it.

On the other side when I started to work as a developer for a small company producing software for accounting (FiBu) and sales (WaWi) I noticed that my boss used to take me to important meetings with potential customers and made me speak during those, even when I didn't have any clear idea of my role during the meeting. My idea was that he is using my Russian accent and the known reputation of Russian hackers for a sort of advertisement: look, we have Russian developers in the team! (I am still not sure if this is true, but this is the only explanation I have).

So, my question is not directly bound to the language, but rather to the social aspects of speaking German with accent: what is the best practice here? Is it true about accent what I see or I am being paranoid here?

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I think, you can relax a little bit about your accent: Yes, people will notice. But IMO people smiling can also mean "oh, this guy is from russia and he really learned my damn mother tongue, how nice is that?" or they just like to hear your accent (IMO one of the reasons the writer Wladimir Kaminer is so popular in Germany). –  0x6d64 Dec 15 '11 at 9:33
    
I have russian colleagues too, and I make them speak German whenever possible. Why? Because I experienced that russians tend to avoid it whenever possible. Oftentimes, they surround themselves with russian culture - like chats, websites, talking russian on the phone for hours and spend their leisure time exclusively with other russians. I understand that they value their culture und language highly. The more important is it to make them speak german in the business. –  Ingo Jan 24 at 9:35
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6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I think it's true, and I think it's unfortunate, and I think I am as guilty as most Germans of this: An accent somehow labels you, and different accents come with different labels.

Of course, which accent provokes which response is an individual matter (although there are probably statistically valid general tendencies) which depends on both the listener and the context (and the speaker - a cute french girl's accent probably comes across differently than that of an old man). You provide an excellent example yourself: Your russian accent, which probably provokes not only favourable reactions, is seen as a bonus by some in the software industry (and would probably also in mathematics or rocket science).

Regarding your question: I don't think you're paranoid, but I also think you shouldn't worry too much. Regardless, I think one should always strive to speak the language of one's host country to the best extent possible, and work to diminish one's accent.

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Thank you for your sincere answer. From my side I must confess that the tolerance towards foreign accents in Russian is much worse, this is probably the result of nation being mono-cultural for long time. –  Alexander Galkin Dec 12 '11 at 23:33
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Software, mathematics, rocket science or debt collection :) SCNR –  Jules Dec 15 '11 at 15:38
    
As @Jules demonstrates, there are not only positive connotations with being russian (or any nationality, in fact). Right at this moment, Putin et al are also hard at work not to leave the most favorable impression possible. –  fzwo Dec 15 '11 at 15:43
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There's a big upside to an accent that your boss is probably exploiting. I think he's letting you speak in front of an audience because people subconciously listen harder to what someone is saying as opposed to a native speaker that might even be "tainted" by a local German dialect (accent). And you know how us Germans don't like other German's dialects.

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Hmm, I have never thought of it but he has a very strong dialect so that it takes people for quite some time to get accustomed to his normal speech. Thanks a lot! –  Alexander Galkin Dec 12 '11 at 23:31
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Obviously, a foreign accent marks you as a foreigner. If that is a status symbol or not, very much depends on if the locals (Germans) generally look up to or down on foreigners of a particular country.

Sadly, while Americans, French and westerners in general are usually looked up to, people from Eastern and Southeastern European and developing countries (including Russians) are often looked down on, because they are assumed to have a low social status, which in today's Germany with its many foreigners is true more often than not.

You can counter this prejudice and negative perception by not exhibiting any signs generally connected to lower class. Judging from your picture, you look like a friendly IT guy, which will not get you confused with the stereotypical lower class Russian living in Germany. So you should be fine. Be aware of prejudice however which you might meet in many places outside a professional work environment.

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I think your analysis of education level having a large influence is quite correct.

People who never had to learn another language cannot appreciate the time and effort you put into educating yourself; and having an accent just tells them you are foreign. This triggers completely different reactions.

For your boss, I think it is more likely that he just values your opinion and knowledge, or wants to present the company as a big player with international team.

Having a Russian hacker doesn't convey much prestige to me.

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I think for some people, the cliché of a Russian programmer or mathematician is that of a hard-working, earnest, brilliant man, a bit like German engineers are sometimes viewed. But yes, this is a very individual thing, and your explanation (Boss valued Alexander's opinion and wanted to show off having an international team) are probably closer to the truth. –  fzwo Dec 13 '11 at 9:51
    
Thank you for your compliment, but there was something more in it than just "valuing my opinion", especially because I am still a student, not a full-time developer. But this is still a very interesting point! –  Alexander Galkin Dec 14 '11 at 9:49
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This cannot be easily reduced to "foreigner brand marks" or "status symbols". But yes, different accents elicit different reactions. Which does not mean you should get rid of your accent. Getting rid of an accent is really hard work. There are so many subtleties in pronunciation you learn automatically as a child, but as an adult it's almost impossible to overcome them.

In your case, the "problem" (it really isn't one) is, that most people with Russian accent in Germany are Russlanddeutsche. They were suppressed in the Soviet Union, they were not allowed to speak German. So they only speak at home German when no-one else listened, learning it from their Grandparents, who weren't probably native German speaker either.

That means, that a Russian accent indicates (in many cases) a hard conversation. This Russlanddeutsche-German is hard to understand for a native German, because it developed its own isolated style. It's even getting harder, when they used it a lot at home and speak their dialect fluently and you try to follow them.

On the other side, there are many Russlanddeutsche who hardly speak German at all. Then you are encountered the same problems as with every other foreigner, not speaking your language. And it is not easy for them to learn German. Suppressed people do not normally have a high educational level.

So you see, that having a Russian accent is something "special" in Germany. Really, you shouldn't care that much about these smiles. People judge you based on their experience, that's human. Take it easy.

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This is very important point. I am myself not a Russlandsdeutscher (I am even not Russian, after all :) ), but my wife is and it is really a tragedy for many of those people, who were courageous enough to remain Germans in the country where people generally hated this nation after the WWII, to face discrimination almost everywhere, finally manage the way to your Vaterland just to become "Russians" here and again face discrimination, prejustice etc. But still there is a good point in your answer! –  Alexander Galkin Dec 14 '11 at 9:55
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From my observation language has a far lower value in judging the social status of a person in Germany as it may be in other countries (see also this question).

It is my believe and - knowing that some people may think different - also my hope that a foreign accent per se is not used as an indicator for social status or to judge a person otherwise. It is rather the choice of wording that may play a role for that as better educated people tend to avoid strong or vulgar expressions (see also this question). Still, everybody irrespect of social status widely uses colloquial German or dialect in daily communication.

Having a foreign accent is of the same significance as it is for Swabians to speak up in a meeting in Hamburg, for Bavarians to go shopping in Berlin, or for Saxons to give a talk in Stuttgart. Not more not less.

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I think this is a very theoretical answer, and while I agree that it would be nice to live in a world (or country) that followed your logic, such a place doesn't exist. And, sadly, I am part of the problem, because I (as well as everybody else) am quick to judge, full of bias and prejudice. It's important to be aware of that to overcome it (which may never be fully possible). –  fzwo Dec 13 '11 at 22:32
    
I admit its an optimistic view I have. But after having lived in England for some time I do appreciate more than ever that I do not have to take much care on my language here in Germany. –  Takkat Dec 13 '11 at 22:46
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Vocabulary and correct use of grammar is more a status indicator than a "phonetic" accent. That way you can often differentiate recent Russian/Baltic immigrants from Russlanddeutsche... –  Jules Dec 15 '11 at 15:46
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