Sunday, December 13, 2009


Apparently I have developed an accent when I speak English. Obviously I have an American accent, but judging from the curious inquiries from people here in California, it's anything but standard or recognizable. Usually people ask where I'm from, and when New Mexico isn't a satisfactory answer they probe on, asking where I grew up, where my family is from, if I speak any other languages, and so forth until finally, unable to pinpoint the explanation they are after, they simply say, "You have a funny accent."

Well, what can I say? The only thing notable about my English, I believe, is that it is nearly accent-less. Not a lot of slang, no regionalisms, no twang, nothing really odd other than the fact that I pronounce my words properly, enunciate as to be easily understood, and use correct grammar. All of these years living abroad, teaching English to foreigners for some cash on the side, and interacting with people who are from different parts of the world and have different levels of fluency in English has led me to speak a seriously neutral variant of my mother tongue.

I wonder if this is one of those things that will adjust over time, or whether I will keep this CNN English from here on out...

What about you long-term expats out there? Have you had this experience, where people back "home" tell you that you've acquired a foreign or strange accent? I'd be curious to hear about your experiences.


nola said...

Yes - I've been told I had an accent when I came back - I used different parts of my mouth differently than before, and American English sounded odd. But my ear and tongue always eventually adapts to where I am, and I like the relaxed New Orleans speech (though we have at least 17 seriously distinct accents in this small city). I'm like so many women who don't know their real hair color anymore - I don't know my original accent anymore, having been overlaid so many times.

As long as we don't sound like Madonna's affected speech, it's all good.

Mandi said...

Never been told my accent is funny (yet), but I do notice that my English has adjusted a bit to talking to non-native English speakers. Meaning that I try to be as direct as possible with my words and keep the idioms and such to a minimum. But I when I'm talking to native speakers, I try to remember to relax that a bit!

Jo Ann v. said...

Well, I speak Portuguese with an accent. And with my name, people ask me where I'm from. They can't believe I am Angolan until I show my ID...

Colin said...

Yeah, I get it all the time. It's a bit embarrassing. On Saturday, for example, some American woman I just met asked where I am originally from, and couldn't believe it when I told her the answer (Philadelphia). Oh well. I'm quite aware my accent is all messed up, and I've come to accept it.

Renaud said...

Hola Prima,

Your post is quite insightful:

While in Paris, I've congratulated on several occasions about how excellent my French was...

What's hilarious is the fact that I, the native, received the compliments from (French) people sometimes born hundreds of miles from Paris! Go figure...

Perhaps it is indeed true that, as "Wandering Jews", we are "condemned" to be home nowhere (or everywhere?), not even in our respective bithplaces.

Best to you and Ricardo.
Beijos e Abraços,

Linda said...

Since my French is atroucious I haven't done a thing to my English accent(American). The French laugh at my French accent though. My relatives are from Kentucky and I was recently told that I had a Kentucky accent although I've never lived there. Picked it up from my relatives I guess.

Live said...

hi ali, its my first time to drop you a line here, but i followed some of your posts and i do really like your spirit :)

i dont suffer much from the accent thing cause i don't meet a lot of foreigners but when it happens they tell me i do speak good, but nothing more, i feel sometime my accent is more British cause i watch a lot of adopted britich novel's movies i like their literature than american i mean the ancient one

i wish if someone would tell me something special about my accent, cause i always wondered about it. :D

Anonymous said...

Hi Ali,

It's been a while since I left a comment here, so let me offer belated congrats on getting accepted to school. I had no doubt you'd get in, though.
Regarding the accent thing, it's really funny. When I'm abroad, gringos immediately ask me if I'm from NY. Here, I've been asked several times if I'm Danish(on the phone) or from the Midwest, so go figure...
I just listened to an interview by our boy Paul Theroux on CBC's Writers and Company and it confirmed sth. I had suspected before: he doesn't sound "American" anymore, even though he lives here now. I guess all those years on the road did take a toll on the "americanness" of his accent. Could the same have happened w/ you?


Ali la Loca said...

~Nola - 17 distinct accents? Wow! Can you distinguish between them? Imitate them? I am amazed. Also, I think the hair color comment is spot on. ;)

~Mandi - It's funny, I used to distinguish between the English I'd use while teaching classes to foreigners and my "regular" English...and these days I really don't see the difference! When I try relaxing my speech and sounding "normal", it feels like I'm putting on an accent!!

~Jo Ann - I can only imagine the responses you get from your name. You are the poster child for cultural fusion. :)

~Colin - You are one of the few people I met in Moz who I remember thinking, "Oh, he talks like me!" I also thought you sounded a bit South African!

~Renaud - Home nowhere and home everywhere...that's really what it boils down to, isn't it? I think the hallmark is when you mix languages even with the people in your family, who you spend most of your time with. Then you know the cultural hodge-podge is complete!

~Linda - Kentucky? How funny! I get told occasionally by Rico's family that I sound like I'm from Portugal, a place I've never been to. Go figure.

~Live - Thanks for your comment. Movies and tv are a great way to learn languages and accents. I would often try to imitate a South African accent while watching tv in Mozambique (we got cable from SA), but never really got good enough to try it out in public.

~Guilherme - I've never heard Paul Theroux speak. I'll have to track down that interview you referenced. Do you have a link? I'd love to hear it. Thanks for stopping by, hope you are doing well. Abraços!

Anonymous said...

There you are:

Just scroll down and you'll find him.


Isabela Campoi, said...

Eu me lembro bem que quando te conheci achei vc carioquíssima ouvindo seu erres em Maringá. Eu näo morei muito tempo fora do país, mas o deslocamento no Brasil era constante: os cariocas nunca se acostumaram com meu R caipira. Já em Maringá, diziam que meu sotaque tava carioca demaissss...hehe... Eu já näo ligo mais pra isso, mas posso perceber se o brasileiro que encontro em Berlin é mineiro, paulista, gaúcho, carioca ou pernambucano...!

nola said...

I sadly cannot imitate most of them. I can hear if somebody's grandparents are from "da parish" (St. Bernard) and then moved to Jefferson Parish - there's a super-"yat" accent that crosses generations. I can hear sometimes between UPper and Lower Ninth Ward. I can sometimes hear which high school a person went to (that is THE identifier of a person here). Sometimes you can hear which housing project somebody grew up in, but not usually for me. Usually the distinctions are broader but also melded.

Most people actually from here sound like they're from Boston - it's funny. But then there are southern drawls and twangs, too. Very, very few people sound like Dr. John and would say N-Awlins. If you're from Uptown of a certain age, you say New OrLEANs, though now more say New ORleans (which I do).

A (Cuban) friend told me that my speech really changes depending on whom I speaking with - she said it's based on whether the person is white or black, but that's way too superficial (though sadly the way almost everybody here breaks down almost everything). But I do sound very different with my neighbors than I do at school - I work on the cadence of "Goo' maaaaaaarnin!" and "How you doin' neighbor?" anytime I step outside. But it's more than just an accent - once I get back into my neighborhood, we all wave at each other and greet each other, and that's not how it is throughout the rest of the city or even a few blocks away. It's funny because a number of people will just see my white skin and scrunch of up their face and be sure they won't understand my CNN-English, so I modulate.

If you have A & E, watch the silly new show Steven Seagal: Lawman - when he breaks into "street patois" it's damn funny. But the different accents of the different officers and of the people they're interacting with gives a few of our different accents.

Jo Ann v. said...

Nola, I totally agree with the last comment. My accents change depending of the people I'm talking to. When in French and to one of my old friends from school who's from Ivory Coast, my accent takes all the French-African expressions. When talking to someone just learning French, I speak like a native. When talking Portuguese with my family, it's full of slang like a street kid. When I am with people I don't know, my Portuguese is so academic ! If I talk with a Brazilian, I get a mix of an accent...
I could go on ;-)

Ali la Loca said...

~Nola and Jo Ann - I definitely have a case of the chameleon accent, too (despite the fact that I sound "funny" to people here in Cali at the moment).

When speaking to Brazilians, my Portuguese is full of slang and, to be honest, cursing. I sound like a sailor if I'm speaking with Rico or around friends in Rio.

When speaking to Mozambicans, I definitely adapt to their linguistic patterns. Things like not using gerunds (estou a fazer...), using local vocab instead of Brazilian equivalents (fiambre, geleira, viatura, comboio, machimbombo, matabicho, etc.). I also really clean up the cursing, because I noticed early on that Mozambicans are not prone to modifying every other word with p*ta or p*rra like the Brazilians are. :)

The funniest accent modification I have is when speaking to people in Moz who don't completely dominate Portuguese (maids, guards, vegetable sellers, etc.) It took me a very long time to be able to communicate with our maid, for example, because she spoke a version of Portuguese I couldn't undestand, and she couldn't understand my 'proper' Brazilian Portuguese. After about 1 year, we got it figured out. She'd speak slowly, and I'd cut out all unnecessary words in my speech.

Case in point:

Instead of saying, "Dona Lídia, a Sra. poderia lavar minha roupa branca hoje de manhã, por favor?" - what I would usually say to be polite - I had to change to, "Estou a pedir lavar roupa branca agora, obrigada." Said with as much of a local accent as I could manage, of course.

Accents are super funny. I learned Portuguese initially with a caipira (hick) accent from Paraná state. I said my 'r's like they do in the US, all drawly and not rolled. Then, when I moved to Rio, my accent completely changed over the course of a couple of months. I don't think I'll have anything that major happen again, but it's obvious that I speak by imitating those around me.

Ali la Loca said...

~Nola - Rico has been watching Steven Segal. I'll try to look out for those accents and the street patois. Sounds very entertaining!