Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery. – Amy Chua
In Abu Dhabi, in the hallway of one of the local schools, I was introduced to the new director of the educational reform project I was a part of. We briefly chatted and moved on but then he turned back.
“Are you British?”
I also told him of my other origins.
“It’s just that you sound like my son,”
“Did he go to international schools?”
“Sometimes. He is in boarding school in France now. It was a hard choice, I miss him.”
The same thing happened when I dropped my daughter off for her first day at preschool in The Netherlands.
“You sound like my daughters,” a teacher said. “They grew up here. They are back home in London now.”
A third culture kid accent? This I mused as I walked home. It’s very possible.
The truth is, I have always thought I have a British accent but Brits will tell me different.
“You sound Swedish or South African,” they usually say, as if experts.
And sometimes it’s purely my accent which leaves a lasting impression on people. They shut down purely from a surface encounter. On a recent trip to London, I went to a toddler group my sister and niece regularly attend. One of the women who hosted it came over.
“We’re sisters,” I told her
“But where are you from? You sound Ukrainian or something!”
I would have thought that my sister being British qualified that I was too?
“Well, I live in The Netherlands…”
“Ah that’s it! You’re Dutch. I knew it. You even look Dutch.”
“No, I’m not Dutch, I just live there.”
“Come and meet my husband, he speaks a little Dutch.”
An awkward encounter followed. I managed to escape when the tea and biscuits were served.
“I’m so sorry about that El,” my sister said.
I shrugged. I am used to it now. But it does pain me at times.
People have crushing anxiety about accents, many non native speakers of English have refused to engage with me. I wished I could communicate how little it mattered to me. People who want to feel better about themselves point out how bad one is. A person is romantic or intelligent due to a distinctive way of pronouncing. I have been in staff rooms in the UK completely bewildered by the ridicule or emphasis my colleagues have placed on accent. I can put them on and have made many friends laugh by doing so but I think it’s only fair to do so in the right context. I had a colleague in the UAE who, whenever we were lesson planning, would think she was impersonating me.
“I’m sorry, I know I do it all the time but I just love your accent!” she’d gush
I just found it rude and intrusive.
“You know, I can do your accent but I don’t,”
She looked confused. I have an accent?
“Do it,” she shot back
So I did. She never mimicked me again.
Accents can take over people. Think elocution lessons or foreign accent syndrome. An American estate agent I met in France sounded like a French person who spoke very good English. I knew an Irish woman who claimed the reason she had an American accent was because she’d once worked with them. She had never set foot in the USA. There is a part of me that’s pleased this has never happened to me. I sound exactly like who I am but perhaps they do too? Different strokes, different folks.
As a child, the adults that loomed over me or my peers that faced me, varied in race, speech or dress. I registered this, especially the older I got. But I was always tuning into another and deeper transmission. I wanted to know what they were saying, not how they said it. It was in my interest to. I’m no chameleon as people often say third culture kids are but I had to start acculturating. I am happy today that my default reaction as an adult is not at all to place any importance on accent. Accents, I find, tell you everything and nothing about a person.
And yet, there is paradox. Something happens later, it can take years. I pass a Turkish bakery in East London and stop in the doorway. I wish very much to go and talk to a male American tourist who speaks like a much loved teacher. I turn towards a French family I hear in a cafe in Amsterdam. The way you hold your knife. The way we danced until three.The way you’ve changed my life. This is how the song goes. The way your voice sounded too. No, they can’t take that away from me.