Meditations upon accents (or, we all have them)*

I opened up (one of) my email account(s) a couple of days ago to find, among entreaties to donate money, information about "green financing" and various emails urging me to buy a particular product which would greatly enhance specific body parts (some of which I don't even have), an advert for a product similar to this.

Now, one "lose your accent" email might be a coincidence but this is the third one I have received in the past four months. Being a naturally-suspicious sort, I smell what one may call a rather large rat. Or, a large and growing market. This suspicion increased when I read an article in yesterday's daily Express (the local free tabloid, published by the Washington Post) about a woman who trains people in Northern Virginia (where loads of hi-tech firms are located) to lose their accents and speak proper (American) English.

That leads me to an ongoing thorn of contention-or, in International Relations-speak-- the structure-agency debate. The Express article (which, for some reason, I can't seem to find anywhere right now) quoted a couple of people who had benefited from this accent reduction process. One of them had had trouble being understood while he did his sales pitches and said something along the lines of how learning to speak American English had helped him become more competitive.

Now, this could be interpreted in two ways--one, the man was constrained by a sociocultural structure that prizes and values a specific version of the English language over any other and had to conform to it to be able to do anything in this country.

Two, the man saw his options of succeeding in his particular job (phone marketing) were higher if he spoke a certain way and so went to this woman to be able to speak American English. So, changing his accent here was useful for him at that time.

Now, where do I fall in this divide? As those who know me in RL can attest to, I have a rather strong accent. If I'm talking for long periods of time or am stressed (as is the case during the start of a class for example), my accent becomes even more pronounced. Should I spend the $49.99 ($44.95 Internet special) and go off to buy this CD? After all, if I did so, I'd lose my accent in 28 days (or so it is claimed by the advert).

But, no, I think I will wait. Why, yous ask? Well, as anyone who has been trained to teach students who have English as a Second or Other Language** can tell you, the best way to teach people to talk (and understand) each other is to take them out to the nearest eating place and eat, drink and chat with them. No, seriously, it's to hang out and talk to the "natives". There really isn't a magic formula for losing one's accent and, really, accents are notoriously difficult to get rid of. They are acquired and they stick.

This, of course, doesn't mean there is only one way most ESOL speakers speak. Or, speakers of any language, actually. I, for example, can speak broad Nepali (or, what one Nepali speaker in Washington called "gutter Nepali") or middle-class Nepali (posher, uses more English words). My Thai reflects where I learnt it (Bangkok). In English, depending on where you are, your accent and words you use can (and does) change. A fit (fanciable) bloke (man) in England doesn't mean the same here. That's a rather obvious observation but one that I wanted to use to point out that discussions about "losing" one's accents usually assume accents are uniform, unitary and singular on all occasions and this is often not the case. Though of course, people usually use words and concepts they have grown up using so it's difficult to change speaking patterns overall. But, that is socialisation, not inherent "accent-ness".

A word about cultural "sensitivity" here too: PTSD readers have travelled to other parts of the world, I'm sure. What is one of the basic instructions that various people (and guidebooks like Lonely Planet) provide? Well, it's to "learn some of the language". After all, it'd be very "culturally-insensitive" to expect Nepali or Thai people to speak English ! We've all heard this argument before. Not that I'm defending the USA or anything but then shouldn't foreigners be culturally sensitive to the Americans too and learn their language? Or, at least try? But, as we know, learning a language is not the same as learning a language with a particular accent. I'm not denying that I can speak (and read and write) English but just not American English.

This gets me back to what is missing in these discussions so far: power. Yes, it's fine if the bloke mentioned in the Express report had a choice to maintain his accent or to change to an American one but, from what he said, he didn't think he had a choice and that is what I find problematic. Based on over 3 years in this country, I find Americans less tolerant of people with accents different to their own, compared to other places I have lived in. I'm not talking about academics here but about the "regular" people--the people who serve us at restaurants, the bus drivers, the shopkeepers--the people who I'd have thought of would be more aware of (and accepting of) people with accents different to their own. Granted America is only the second (mostly) English-speaking country I have lived in for longer than a year but the pressure to sound American is, I feel, higher than the pressure to sound Australian (very little, though people made far more fun of my accent there than here. Sarcasm, yes; pressure to conform, not so much). Travels (and talking to family) in England makes it seem the attitude there is that Londoners don't understand the Liverpudlians anyway and no one really understands people from Yorkshire, so why bother to make other folks sound the same? Following on from my colourist kick, variations in accents in both Australia and Britain seem to be regional (and class-based) rather than ethnic-group based. Here, regional changes in accents exist but there are more obvious variations along colour and ethnic lines.

At this point in the post, I'm not sure what I'm arguing for or even if I have an argument. I don't think I do but just that I have always been in favour of people learning other languages, however they can, without worrying about having an (American or French or Spanish) accent. But, I'm also trying to make the rather obvious point that my initial reaction (throw virtual darts at the person or organisation sending me the advert) to the "lose your accent" email was tempered (a bit but not much) by the recognition that some people do want to reduce their accents. My chosen profession, academia, is more forgiving of accents than other professions. If I were a telephone marketer in Northern Virginia, I might be taking advantage of that woman's classes too***. However, if everyone started speaking American, I reckon this place would be hugely dull. Half the fun of going shopping, talking to people playing chess in Dupont, counselling English as a Second or Other Language speakers (one of my part-time jobs now) and just talking to folks in my programme is to learn how to use new words, listen to different accents making sense of things.

So, here's my view: lose your accent if you want to (but don't expect it to be completely gone); don't think it's the only accent you can have (so, are irrevocably tarred); explain that while you may sound different, you can still speak the bloody language (and, really, that's effort enough. How many Americans can say the same about some other language, eh?) and, for the Imperial Masses, do keep in mind that everyone has accents, not just foreigners and, sometimes, yous are as difficult to comprehend.

* I should add a PTSD disclaimer that both E and I are sort of in the midst of whatever it is that we should be doing but aren't and that is why posts have been scarce. Actually, I've no clue what E's in the midst of and she may well be busily writing away part of her dissertation (or, at least I hope so). Me, I'm dog-sitting for various people (all a consequence of dire financial peril. I'd urge yous to avoid DFP as much as possible since it's not a fun state to be) for the upcoming month and trying to work on two co-authored papers, neither of which are going anywhere right now.

** I have a TESOL (Teacher of...) training certificate as a result of my (mis)spent youth.

*** I'd love to insert a sound file here with my (potential) American accent but don't have the means to make a sound file nor to sound American. Maybe E can give me lessons?


At 8/04/2006 10:27 AM, Anonymous serena said...

wow that was a rather long post priya! LOL and all about accents...someone get you riled up or what...I always get the question of where is your massachusetts accent and my answer is with my husband! LOL not only that but here's an interesting tidbit for you...many people misconstrue accents as well...for instance, oftentimes people expect massachusetts residents to all talk like Ted Kennedy...which is ridiculous because he is from Boston and is upper class...while other aspects of the state and classes have much different versions of their state accent...and there is indeed hefty pressure to become American...its sad really.

I do agree that we all, meaning humanity, should attempt to learn some of the language when visiting or living in another country...i for one would not expect the Chinese to speak English just because I am visiting.

At 8/04/2006 12:21 PM, Blogger Priya said...

Yes, I thought I'd make up for the lack of posting and E's disappeared!

This is a rather fun article on the topic (too lazy to do the coding) which discusses reactions to the BBC putting subtitles for a programme on Scottish fishermen:


I like it when the guy calls for:

"A bit of consistency in allowing people to listen and make up their own mind rather than pandering to people who don't want to engage with anything outside their own back yard."

Yes, that's my view: accents can be confusing but they should be allowed to grow forth and prosper and all that, in general though particular circs might require different measures.

Personally though, I expect people to speak English to me everywhere and don't plan on learning languages when travelling. I'm all for cultural imperialism, just with different accents :-P

At 8/05/2006 3:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I (heart) your accent. Causes me to speak in Priya-speak. Probably a result of envy, but I consider people with accents (meaning people without American Mid-Atlantic) more interesting. Foreign, regional, whatever. There's a history there, a culture, a background. C'mon, that's cool.

Though I cringe mightily when am accused of having a Pittsburgh accent. That's right, yunz, don't forget to warsh your car down by the crick, but be careful since the rocks can be slippy. See? Background! Culture! Such as it is.

Priya knows who this is.

At 8/07/2006 10:51 AM, Anonymous serena said...

LOL warsh! you sure that ain't bostonian...adding an "r" where it doesn't belong??

At 8/07/2006 11:38 PM, Blogger Elizabeth said...

Pittsburgh? Really? Sounds like my family. My grandparents, at least. Brings back childhood memories of voices yelling "get your ass in the house and warsh your hands!"


Post a Comment

<< Home