From having your name spelled incorrectly on a Starbucks cup even after spelling out every single letter to the barista, to observing a room freeze into empathetic silence after everyone notices your foreign accent, even dismissing you as speech-impaired or unintelligent — living with a foreign accent is difficult.
Accents can be the beginning of intriguing conversations, launching people into inquisitive worlds in which to explore one another’s cultures and backgrounds. However, they can also induce demoralizing interactions, and often humiliating experiences.
For instance, recently a nice gentleman who looked to be in his 40s noticed my accent, and asked me where I was from. From there, he inquired about how long I’d been in the US to learn English. To top that off, sympathetically ranted that he couldn’t imagine how hard it is for me to deal with reading long English texts. Furthermore, after a polite exchange, he seemed genuinely bewildered and unwelcoming to the fact that I learned to speak English “so well” in an African country.
Now, usually I would have resorted to my defensive self, pointing out his ignorance through sarcasm. Perhaps I would have told him how sad I felt that his education had failed him. But I didn’t. This was one of the times where resistance seemed a genuinely pointless escape. It felt like there was nothing I could do to usher this man past his engraved stereotypes and preconceptions about my foreign accent.
Sometimes these everyday experiences can be overwhelming to the extent of wanting to actively “sound American” as a way to escape patronizing receptions associated with having a foreign accent, and the subsequent stereotypes that go with it. In Chimamanda Adichie’s book “Americana”, for example, the main character, Ifemelu, has a patronizing encounter with an admissions assistant by virtue of her Nigerian accent. She eventually chooses to fake an American accent in order to seem competent. Unfortunately, many people living in foreign countries, like Ifemelu, give in to the same option.
The problem is that accents evolve all the time depending on preference, where you are, or whom you live with. For instance, after I spent some time overseas, conversations when calling home would predominantly center around how much more “American” I sounded compared to when I left home. This was uncomfortable because it often had an implicit negative connotation to it. And in a subconscious attempt to influence that connotation, I recoursed to speaking my home language, and assumed the best version of a South African accent I could remember.
In the long run, this can create a dilemma detrimental to one’s identity. Do I actually have an accent of my own? Am I shedding my identity to people’s perceptions about me? If I practiced an American accent enough, would I overcome stereotypes so much that people will actually focus on what I say rather than how I say it?
Moreover, as you interact with different people, you start to realize your accent is only getting weirder and weirder. So what should be done to address this? There are options.
For some people you can choose to actively fight to keep your native accent, like Ifemelu. Eventually, she decides not to let her patronizers win, and makes a conscious effort to stop faking an American accent and start to embrace how she speaks. This is also done by figures like Trevor Noah, Adichie, and Priyanka Chopra, who have famously asserted how maintaining their accents in a world that expects them to sound a certain way is central to their identity.
However, another way is to accept accents as a reflection of lived experience. As narratives of the places you’ve been and the memories you’ve created, as opposed to a reflection of how “colonized” you are. In this way, accents can be the beginning of intriguing conversations, launching people into inquisitive worlds in which to explore one another’s experiences, cultures, and backgrounds. The idea is to wear your strong accent as a colorful cloak that tells tales. To speak in your accent itself is to tell a story of identity, which is constantly changing.
My housemates and I come from seven different countries: Jamaica, USA, Gambia, Yemen, China, Ecuador and SA. Between us, we have lived in more than 25 cities around the world. None of us sound like where we are from, for very different reasons. In fact, if you heard us all speak, you would not be able to tell which of us comes from which country. If we all sounded the same, I think that would be boring.
Essentially, together, we make up a cocktail of beautifully crafted fluid accents with thousands of seasoned experiences behind them. None of us owes anyone an explanation about why we don’t sound like how you expect us to.
Accepting that people sound different and embracing them for that reason is important. We are a generation of different languages, dialects, and accents with code-switching as our way of life. The world is a more and more diverse fabric of intertwined cultures, and if that means paying extra attention to comprehend someone’s accent and learning how to pronounce their name, that’s just how it’s gonna have to be.
Deal with it.