Speaking With an Accent – Learn to Live With It

Funny thing, accent. Triggers all sort of questions from people you’ve never seen in your life – and may not necessarily ever see again. And, unless you want to come accross as extremely rude, you should politely engage in a (pointless) conversation.

There are three main questions.

1. Where are you from?

The sort of question you don’t mind answering too much, although it tends to be a geography quiz of some sort. Bulgaria? Errr, OK. Yes, Bulgaria, and no, not where Dracula comes from. Although that’s geographically close enough, what you are thinking of is Romania. And no, Belgium and Bulgaria are not the same country. Yes, they both start with a B, I can give you that, but one is in Western Europe, while the other one is in Eastern. And no, Hungaria doesn’t sound as similar as you think – not to me, born and bred in Bulgaria. Sorry, this is as far as my tolerance goes. You either know where on the map it is, or you don’t.

2. How long have you been living in the UK?

OK, this question is not particularly personal, so don’t mind answering that either. 14 years. My, where does the time go!

3. So you must like it here, then?

Now, this is the sort of question that I do actually consider a bit personal. I wouldn’t want to explain to a stranger the psychology of a foreigner/immigrant/expat, etc. That you sometimes feel like you’ve lost your identity, that you no longer feel at home in your own country – but would never really feel at home in your new one, either. You’ll always be stuck in between somewhere – like that platform in ‘The Matrix’, between two dimensions. Or the platform in ‘Harry Potter’ – only visible to magicians, but not to muggles.

You wouldn’t want to expose your vulnerability to a stranger, admitting that you no longer feel like a patriot. If anything, you sometimes fear you’ve betrayed your own country because you’ve chosen another one for your own selfish purposes.

That’s why you just go with the answer a stranger would expect from a stranger: ‘Yes, I like it here’. End of conversation.

Whether I like this or not, to me my accent is like being tall: I can’t change it, so better try and live with it. I am not one of those lucky people who can pick up accents. That’s my fate, I just can’t be unnoticed in a group of people: first because of my height, and once they’ve spoken to me – because of my accent.

Living with a foreign accent can be a pickle. Depends on how strong your accent is I guess, or how easy it is for locals to understand you. But mainly it depends on the level of intelligence of your environment. At least this is what I have come to observe over the past fourteen years.

In my first years in the UK, this got to me so much that I decided there was something so seriously wrong with my English that I had to look for a language course. Which proved tricky to arrange, as I has just done a Master’s in this country, with a pretty decent grade, so my language must have been not too bad. Still customers struggled to understand me in the shop I worked in.

I’ll never forget that random conversation with an old funny lady looking for tomato tins – in a shop selling cosmetics and toiletries. She just would not understand me, and all I was saying was ‘tomato tin’. In how many different ways can you pronounce this phrase, for God’s sake?? Try it. Say it loud: tomato tin! See? This is what I mean.

A couple of years on, I got lucky. I got picked for a job for my language skills – bingo! Working in a college language centre was the perfect place for me. I got comfortable, people understood me, respected me and were able to see the person behind the accent. Which was the case in my next job, again in a college, i.e. surrounded by intelligent people. With the exception of ambitious middle-class mothers agressively trying to sort out some future for their dumb sons. Sorry, can’t possibly understand me, as I don’t speak that particular accent of their tiny little village.

Which is what kept me grounded: you should never feel too comfortable here, as you will always be a bloody foreigner in this country!

In my most recent workplace I feel totally at home. It’s a multinational university where being a foreigner is never a bad thing. After all, it’s international students who pay the highest fees. International staff are just as common. So, after working here for over seven years, I thought it was pretty safe to feel settled and decided that accent problems were a thing buried in the past.

Until my son said something last night which hit home big time. We like reading ‘Harry Potter’ together at bedtime. He’s nearly finished the second book when he decided to admit that he’d rather read on his own, as he doesn’t understand some of the words when it’s me reading aloud. Because of my accent.

He is a native British speaker, unlike me.

This is when the American term comes to mind: legal alien. Yes, I am legal, and am settled. But I will always be an alien, even to my own son. Unless I lose my darn accent.

51 comments

  1. It’s tricky, isn’t it? I’ve never felt so foreign as when I lived in the US. I’m a native speaker of English, UK born, but the subtleties of the language didn’t travel well. I remember people laughing if I ever swore – I didn’t sound cross to them, I sounded like the Queen of England in a bit of a tizz!

    If your son has heard Harry Potter being read by Stephen Fry or by his teacher, he’ll have an idea of the way the invented words in it – Quidditch, Muggles etc ‘should’ sound. He’ll have fixed them in his mind for security – as they’re new to him too. Even a slight variation will unsettle him a bit. I would guess that, as he reads more of the books, he’ll become more secure with the invented language and allow a bit of variation. As you’re his dad, he can be direct. As his dad, he must love the sound of your voice reading to him. There will be special books that you’ve read to him whose sounds will only sound ‘right’ in your voice.

    I don’t think I’ve ever taught English to a Bulgarian speaker, but I looked here http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=2258263 Are these some of the differences between English and Bulgarian that you notice?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, the information in this forum is rather detailed and quite correct I think. The variety of tenses (is this even the correct plural…?) can also be confusing for some, as well as the irregular verbs. I myself would not be the best source of information, though, as I’ve been studying English since about 10.

      And about my post – yes, I am sure you are right about my son. Oh, and I am mum by the way (not dad). ๐Ÿ˜‰

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      • Sorry – I have no idea why I assumed you were a man! I hope your son’s preference for reading Harry Potter to himself doesn’t put you off reading to him. There’s an age where children want their parents to be the ‘same’ as everyone else’s parents – I remember my son wanting me to pick him up at school in a dress, because that’s what all the other mothers did (they didn’t, but it was what he thought he saw). They become hyper sensitive to what they perceive as the ‘right’ way to do things and it’s often more restrictive than the most fundamentalist religion!

        Liked by 1 person

    • My American accent marks me out here as surely as yours did in the U.S., but it does lend itself well to swearing and I’m grateful for that.

      I love the title of your blog. I do remember hearing somewhere that every accent is a song.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I thought something along those lines, too. And it’s a great oximoron (sorry if I got spelling wrong), a bit like what a teacher of mine used to say: ‘I can’t hear without my glasses’.

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      • What a beautiful idea. I think that’s true. Every accent is a song – and we should glory in them as we do with different birdsong. Have you ever heard Tweet of the Day, by the way? A wonderful piece of radio http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s6xyk

        Thank you for your kind words about my blog title. That’s a sweet thing to say.

        I can imagine swearing in an American accent in the UK
        would win respect because you’d sound like all the actors in The Wire or Breaking Bad, suddenly brought to real 3D life. Your audience would be primed to take you seriously. ๐Ÿ™‚ I just sounded like something off Masterpiece Theatre.

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  2. I will never get rid of my accent… But oh well! At least I speak multiple languages ๐Ÿ˜‰ And its a conversation starter, as annoying as it can be… No, I am not Irish… No not German either (I get that German and Swiss accent sound the same but Irish????). No, not Sweden! Switzerland! No, they are not next to each other… They are actually far away from each other… And no, just because both are in Europe, they are not the same! Ggggrrrrrr….

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I am learning so much about various emotions and experiences of immigrants and expats throug blogs. You raise some dilemmas and almost sadness in that life that I would never have realized. Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am a speech language pathologist and have done work with speakers trying to reduce their accents. I always find it fascinating to speak to my clients about identity and how much of it is tied to how they sound, the language they consider their mother tongue, and how it is perceived by others.

    I was an exchange student in high school and spent a year in Australia. My first thought when traveling home after landing for a stop over in Hawaii was ‘Those horrible American accents!’ My family and friends of course teased me about my Australian accent until it went away.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. My husband is from England, and gets asked fairly regularly how long he’s been in Canada (19 years), and if he misses England (some aspects of it, but not the ‘living there’ part). He’s never said, and I’ve never asked, if he feels torn between two identities. I think he sees the possession of two citizenships and two passports as an advantage rather than a liability, though.

    The English are a bit funny about accents, perhaps because they ‘know’ (or assume) so much about each other based on accent, they’re quick to assume and judge others based on foreign accents, too. They assume Canadians are American (unless they don’t want to offend you, then they’ll pretend to assume you’re Canadian), they can tell the difference between Australian, New Zealand, and South African accents (which most North Americans can’t), and they’re generally more accepting of varying English-as-first-language accents than they are of foreigner-speaking-English accents, in my observation.

    The last few years, with the open “borders” with the EU, has led to an influx of Eastern Europeans in the UK. The young people working in shops and pubs used to be Aussies and Kiwis, but now the accents tend to be Polish, even in tiny country pubs far from cities. It’s funny to see the effect that has on the locals, though it can’t be much fun to be the one causing the stir. Thanks for a glimpse at the other side of that equation.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Never gave it a thought how an accent would not be a positive for a person with The Accent! To me it spoke of another interesting person with a culture different from mine! Maybe I’d learn something new and share life experiences. But that’s just my positive slant on it. This post brings up the trials.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh, accents. I’ve one, too. It’s quite mixed and I like it that way. Throws people off all the time. I’m not above letting the curious guess it and some of the guesses are so off the hook (Brazil, Trinidad) it’s highly amusing. Someone at work once tried to make conversation by asking me “so when are you going to Poland?” by which he meant home for the holidays. I replied “maybe next year, I’ve always wanted to see Krakow.” When people whom I’ve told more than once where I’m from once again appear to forget, I just tell them random countries.

    I had a long term relationship with a Brit and although she was very supportive and rather curious about my background I could just tell she never quite got it. But when I was doing this acting workshop the instructor once told me “that was good but not English enough”. It goes both ways. Which reminds me about an outing to see Gorky’s Children of the Sun at the National. Almost as soon as it started I was struck by how “un-Russian” the actors acted ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hm yes, I too sometimes leave them to guess and watch them agonise. My husband is rather fair looking and sometimes makes himself pass for Swedish. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for stopping by, anyway, and for taking the time to comment!

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      • My favourite story is about reverse culture shock, though. After living in NYC for a decade, I returned to my very scenic, tiny, armpit of Eastern Europe town and duly got asked where I was from because I apparently didn’t sound like the locals. I had to pull my heaviest local accent to “prove myself” but I still failed on the use of local slang because in our household we spoke like on TV. We was so posh ๐Ÿ˜‰

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Aw Angie lol! That was funny! I’ve always assumed you were English though, as you speak the language well! I sometimes (not always) confuse Bulgaria with Belgravia so that I always do a double take when reading just to verify what I saw..

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Australians love to think they can pick an accent. We can’t, of course, and that’s just natural since we live on the exact opposite end of the world compared to the rest of the English-speaking countries (save for NZ or South African, we’re okay there). I’m Australian-born, but since I’m from the city and like to pronounce things clearly, whenever I go out bush the country people think I’m English. I don’t speak with a twang, I don’t run my words together and I don’t sound like a crow. It’s weird having your ‘own people’ think that you’re foreign, but I like to think it’s not a bad thing.
    This was a great post! It’s funny how we can place a lot of emphasis on accents, which is really a superficial thing, and as you pointed out – it doesn’t indicate the length of time you’ve been in England (as it sounds like you’ve been there a while). It’s just something you have.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This it quite interesting, I just love Australian accent. British accent is nice, too, so I guess you were born lucky. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Thanks for stopping by and commenting, I appreciate this.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. When I have to describe/define my accent, I always call it British English [because basically that’s what’s being taught in Germany, not American English] with a German accent. And my German accent definitely is that of the Rhineland area, where I lived for about 60 years of my life, before emigrating to Texas. I’m always appalled when I listen to myself from a tape, how strong that “Cologne sing-song” type of accent comes through.
    Have a great day,
    Pit
    P.S.: Thanks ever so much for following my blog. I hope you’ll find it interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, I will soon be checking out your blog more thoroughly. If you are Ellen’s friend, you are mine, too. ๐Ÿ™‚ As for the accent, I know what you mean about listening to your own voice – I hate listening to mine, especially talking English….

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  11. I felt the tension building all the way through your answer to “where are you from.” I could hold it in no longer–you had me rolling in my chair laughing with “You either know where on the map it is, or you donโ€™t!” Thanks for the fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. It’s a continuing battle we have on the planet, learning to accept, dare I say “like” difference! We think we each live behind these separated walls of body frames, feeling sometimes like we’re the only right way, when we’re really all one, united.

    I’m grateful there’s so much more international migration, some having to be guinea pigs to the end that we learn to appreciate each other.

    Other day, here in the U.S., a woman was ringing me up at the cash register in an office products store, with what I call a lyrical lovely accent. I couldn’t pick it up though I used to be good at that. It was French though she’s probably also of African origin so that threw me off.

    When I inquired, she immediately tensed up, thought a criticism was coming. Forget her comment but I immediately felt the need to put her at ease, tell her how much Americans love “English” with a twist, foreign accent, and that she should exploit it for all it’s worth. Walk proudly as who she is, no apologies.

    Was happy to leave her with a smile on her face, a sigh of relief that she could walk a tiny bit easier in her current new home.

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