As far as I’m concerned, I do tend to judge people I meet by their accents. I don’t mean that I’m a sort of snob, and only like people with upper-class accents, but I never feel comfortable with a new person until I’ve been able to place them from the way they speak. If it’s an English person, I feel much more at ease if I can say “Ah, he comes from Liverpool”, or “He’s probably been to a public school”. I suppose then I know what to talk about and what to expect from the other person.
The same is true of foreigners. Personally, I prefer a foreigner to speak with a recognizable foreign accent, so that I know that I’m talking to a Frenchman, a Ghanaian, a Pole, and so on. So for me, it seems a bit pointless for foreigners to try desperately hard to get rid of their national accents and try to speak BBC English. If someone is clearly French, I know there’s no point in talking about cricket or making jokes about the Irish. And frankly, I think it even sounds more attractive. I can’t really explain why, but if people have foreign accents, they seem to be more interesting, even if they are saying the most ordinary things.
Mind you, there is a limit to intelligibility. If the accent is so strong that you have a struggle to understand what they are trying to say, then that gets in the way of the conversation, and the flow is broken while you try to sort out the sounds into meaningful bits. I don’t mean an accent as strong as that. I’m talking about the kind of accents whereby you can tell immediately which countries people come from, but which don’t prevent you from following what they are saying. I suppose it’s the kind of accent most foreigners have, really. To be honest, it’s only a very few who have such a good ear that they produce more or less genuine British English, and even then it can be quite amusing because they may have picked up a clearly regional accent, or even a very upper-class accent which doesn’t fit in with their character at all. But most foreigners who learn English are desperately keen to get rid of their foreign accents and waste a lot of time trying to do so.
On the other hand, I’ve got to sympathize with them and even admire them, because I speak quite reasonable French myself, and I’m always very pleased when I’m taken for a Frenchman and feel quite discouraged when someone immediately spots that I’m English. But there again, to my ear, French spoken with an English accent sounds really ugly, and I feel uncomfortable when I hear a fellow countryman murdering the language. So I suppose foreigners feel the same way when they hear compatriots doing the same to English. However, I have been told by French friends that French spoken with a certain degree of English accent doesn’t offend their ears at all, and in fact sounds quite charming. I’ve been told that Petula Clark was a successful singer in France partly because of her English accent, and I suppose that one of the most celebrated French speakers of English was that actor, Maurice Chevalier, who made a career out of sounding French and who could probably have spoken it with much less of an accent if he had really wanted to.
I contrast him with a French friend of mine who obviously had a gift for languages, and was always being taken for a well-educated Englishman when I was with him in England. Because of the way he spoke, my English friends assumed he knew all about certain facets of English life which you can only learn by living in the country for years. So he often had to ask me to explain things to him after an evening in the pub. I don’t know how much time he had spent getting his accent right, but perhaps he could have spent his time better broadening his vocabulary and knowledge of the country. Now that English is such an international language, I think we should accept a wider range of accents and learners should concentrate more on structure and vocabulary than accent.