Why I Can’t Speak English in England.
In this, the first of two posts discussing accents, I want to talk about an issue for which I have no answers. It’s a question that I’ve discussed with friends over many a beer and is still unresolved, so I’d like to hear what other people think about it.
Let me start with a scenario: Pretend for a moment that you’re going about a regular day. And in this regular day, you meet a new coworker who seems like a nice, normal lady. Soon you find out that she recently moved to the US from Australia … but she doesn’t have an Australian accent.
Is that weird? Did she lose her accent or put on an American one? Or would someone with the same native tongue subdue their natural accent and put on a different one to try to fit in?
Now what if that lady were from Moscow? English would have been a foreign language to her. You’d probably compliment her on how well she speaks, right?
But what if it is the same language, just a different dialect and accent? Is the Australian speaking like a New Yorker creepy mimicry, or an impressive and even flattering linguistic feat?
As an American born and raised on the east coast, with parents who are native-born, I speak with a pretty neutral, Mid-Atlantic American accent. But I seem to have a gift for picking up other accents. It’s something I noticed when I was pretty young when I started mimicking English accents I heard in movies. It’s just a gift I’ve been given, though in my next life, I think I’ll be rich instead.
The funny thing is that when I go somewhere for more than a long weekend, I unknowingly start to pick up the local dialect. A number of years ago, I spent some time in England and by the end of my trip, I had to consciously reapply my American accent. Just being immersed in the locals’ pronunciation, choice of words, and cadences made my mouth start to speak like I’d grown up there.
And any time I’d catch myself dropping the r’s from the ends of words, I felt pretty sheepish, not to mention the funny looks I’d get from my wife. I felt like I was putting on airs, pretending to be something I wasn’t. So even though I wasn’t trying to adopt a new dialect on purpose, it kept creeping in and I had to put on an American accent to combat it.
But on the other hand, so what? Wouldn’t it be a nod of respect to people to speak their tongue in their way? I spent some time in Germany and was quite proud of the shocked looks I got as people learned I wasn’t a local: “But your German accent is so good.”
So what do you think? Would you feel comfortable speaking with an English accent in England as a foreigner? How would you feel about an Englishman putting on your accent? Is it alright to adopt another dialect quickly, or is there some probationary period where you have to live there for more than six months before you’ve earned your new accent?