Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Just the other day, I spoke to an old friend of mine from Boston who is now living in New York. Within just a few minutes of talking, he said, "What happened to your accent?" I thought about it for a moment and said, "I'm not really sure, but I think it'll go back to normal when I get back to the States."

I know that my accent is different, but I like it. People have a very hard time placing me from the way I speak and it has been concluded that I have an "International English" accent, meaning it is clear I am a native English-speaker, but I don't carry too many very place-specific sounds. The benefit of the way I speak, beyond keeping my origins elusive (a convenient thing for an American abroad), is that a lot of students like my accent and pay me good money to teach it to them. I have been hired to do recordings and have taught classes just on pronunciation. (For those of you that don't know it, during my teacher training, I got really into phonetics, which was good because it's a specialty--not too many ESL teachers are very familiar with teaching students how to produce sounds.)

But beyond my teaching experience, my accent was always a little different and I believe this is a result of my father's doing. As a child he would consistently correct my grammar and pronunciation. "Don't mumble. You should speak with pear-shaped tones" he would announce, and he would remind me that the "h's" in words like "when", "where", and "white" were there for a reason. When I would call my sister "stupid", pronouncing it "stoopid", he would say, "she's not stooped over at all, but you sound 'stupid'". These brutal lessons in elocution were followed by "Voice and Articulation" classes at Emerson College. The bastard of a man who was my professor, also the man who wrote the book that we used, felt that I spoke with too much "vocal tension" and instead of just one required semester of his class, I had to take two, the second including private coaching with his assistant. I absolutely hated this man, and his class, and while I found the subject interesting, I had a hard time finding respect for anyone who failed to correctly say my name (he said it my-LEE, not MY-lee, putting the stress on the wrong syllable) whilst still claiming to be an expert on speech.

Since passing that class with a C, I have learned the value of learning how sounds work, and it has helped me to become a good language teacher, as well as language learner. But the question still begs, "What happened to your accent [since]?" I suppose that my only good reply is that I live abroad and associate with few Americans. Right after college, I lived and worked in London. Upon returning to Boston, I worked for an English company. Here in China, I work for the British Embassy and the vast majority of my colleagues are English, or Scottish or Australian.

In my mind, language is rather fluid. It's really impossible to learn everything there is to know about a language because it is constantly changing. Students in China often get frustrated when teachers tell them "no one speaks perfect English", and often, you can hear the effects of a student having many teachers from different places, for example they'll say, "I cahn't (British) eat eggplants (American)." Also, when put into situations where accents are very different from the ones known, ears adjust to facilitate understanding. The first month of working at the English company in Boston, I had no idea what anyone said--it took that long to learn their patterns of intonation and differences in vowel sounds. For some people, like me, I suppose, the tongue also adjust with the ears, so not only to I learn to hear the sounds, I automatically learn to mimic them. This is my only explanation for why my accent has changed. I'll admit that when I'm with a group of British people, my "r's" soften, for example, from "caRRR" to "cahhr". At the same time, I also sharpen my "t's", so instead of "a puppy is a liddle dog", as Americans would say it, I come out with something more like "li-ttle", though it's hardly a full-blown British "li-TTle" or even a hard "li-le" where the sound is dropped altogether, as how Londoners will say it. (In fairness, that old goat, Ken Crannell, my articulation teacher, told me that Americans are supposed to pronounce the "t", anyway--we just don't.) By no means do I sound actually like a British person, nor am I trying to, but I realize that the simple changes are enough to make me sound "not quite American".

There are two reasons why I am writing about this terribly-interesting-I'm-sure topic and there are: 1. I just heard this clip about American accents on NPR and 2. I am very nervous about going back to the States after having lived abroad for more than three years. Every time I go out and hear Americans, I think about going back. I realize that I have created a little bubble of a life here, and it's very colorful and very international. I suppose that part of the allure of living abroad is NOT associating with compatriots (as my friend Michael says, it's like taking sand to the beach), and I fear that I will feel somewhat out of place when I return. (Oh! Oh! Pity me! Little Miss Jet Set is afraid of missing her French friends going back to her land of cultural and social expectation!) Of course, I'll be in New York, the capital of the world, and of course, I'm sure I'll get along fine. I guess I'm just nervous about leaving Beijing.

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