I bet you have heard of Game of Thrones – the HBO Series that became so popular. I am again and again stunned by the great performance of the actors in it. And their accents. It is interesting that in certain American series all actors speak another accent, mostly the English one. That is also the case in Game of Thrones. All British and some American actors then, one might think, right? Wrong. One of them is Dutch.
Who is it? The evil witch that uses black magic under the Lords of Light and Darkness – Melisandre! The person behind her is Carice van Houten.
Carice van Houten is a Dutch actress, born in 1976 in Leiderdorp in the Netherlands. She has lived in the Netherlands her whole life. She went to a Dutch school, and to the Kleinkunstacademie (School of performing arts) in Amsterdam. She mainly performed in Dutch productions, but has also been active in the United States. Most famously, she played in the Dutch film Zwartboek (Black Book), a remarkable movie about the Second World War, in Valkyrie with Tom Cruise, also about the Second World War, and now in Game of Thrones.
In the English productions, she obviously speaks English. Not a big deal, many people, also Dutch speak English. But she speaks it flawlessly, with a to my ears crystal clear British accent. Where did she pick that up?
I do not want to deny that some people just seem to have the talent to adopt to certain accents without much ado, but I have not met many of these people. What can be another reason for such a flawless accent is the childhood environment.
There has been a study at the University of Amsterdam that has shown that a person can adopt to the accent of the environment he or she lives in without major issues until puberty ends. After that, it is harder to do, but it is possible. The father of Carice van Houten is Dutch-British. He was born in the Netherlands too, but he grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. This allowed him to acquire a very good understanding of the English language, and to make it one of his own. He then passed this on to his daughter Carice. Even though her parents separated when she was 5, she moved back in with her father at the age of 17. So when she was still developing, she has frequently been exposed to a British English that she as such got used to.
So her flawless English can be traced back to her childhood and teen years. It is interesting to see how this ability to accustom oneself changes over time.
When I was in the United States, I met a woman in a store. I asked her, on hearing her accent, whether she was German – and she was. She had lived in the United States for over 30 years, but she had only moved there, and then got in touch with the language, when she was around 34. She never lost the distinguishable German accent – even though she had tried very hard.
Then on the other side, some children and teens learn a vast amount of languages as long as they are young, like this guy. I think it is absolutely fascinating.
Of course it is important to keep the language up to date by regularly speaking it. And I think that this is the biggest problem – to have an environment around where this other language is spoken.
All the same, I do not think accents that deviate from the ideal English or American accents are bad or inferior. After all, who is to decide what this ideal accent is? It is impossible to find, as everybody speaks a language differently, and everybody hears and interprets accents and pronunciation differently. And even if this was not a factor, accents are nice. They tell something about the person behind that personal way of speaking. Here in Maastricht, I have met students from Poland, Italy, England, France, Belgium, and Germany, to name just a few. All have their own accent, and it makes them unique. So if you have an accent when you speak, don’t see it as wrong, but enjoy being unique! :-)