It was the first board meeting of the year for a large, international organization. As there were going to be new members for the board, it was needed to go around and introduce ourselves. There were people from the four nations where the organization has a presence plus individuals from other nations who reside in one of the four nations represented. Everyone was sharing their names, location, and their job. It was right there when it happened…
With no hint of irony in her voice, the white, middle age, college-educated woman states that she lives in one of the places that was taken first from the native inhabitants and then from the nation to the south. Proudly she tells her audience – an international audience – that she “teaches foreign students how to lose their accents so they can get jobs” in the United States. Yup. Right as you read it. Immigrants who had spent years of education, who probably speak more than one or even two languages, needed this woman’s help to lose their accents so they could get in with the system.
I looked around for the reaction of my fellow immigrants and non-white colleagues, and, unsurprisingly, we all cringed a little. What this woman was saying, unconsciously, is that our accents make us look dumb, uneducated and unprepared for the professional challenges that jobs in this country offer.
Not long ago, something similar happened to me as I was about to take a new position and someone suggested that the organization paid for a coach who would help me lose my accent. (Full disclosure: I was not informed of this until after I had accepted the position, which caused much pain as I worked there.)
The USA culture states that, no matter how ethnically diverse the country is, those of us who have kept our accents from our mother tongues do not quite belong. For some immigrant communities this has meant that their ancestors’ languages have been lost because the parents are worried their children might not be able to find work or succeed in life. Interestingly, the culture has also incorporated words from other languages into the US English. Think, for instance, about words such as Kindergarten (German), pierogi (Polish), mesa (Spanish), bouquet (French), Brooklyn (Dutch), finale (Italian), tycoon (Japanese) and shtick (Yiddish), just to name a few. Other languages are part of the US culture, but nobody wants to acknowledge it. Moreover, if those of us who emigrated here from other countries with a different language use our own languages to communicate or express ourselves in English with an accent, then we are scolded for it.
Yet, nobody pays attention or asks Australians, South Africans, Jamaicans, New Zealanders, Trinidadians or British to lose their accents. Why?
It is true that communication is extremely important in academic and professional settings. (The personal settings are a bit different due to the familiarity of the people involved.) However, our accents and language backgrounds should not dictate our – the immigrant’s – capabilities to do the work. Being able to speak a language different than English does not mean that we have less education, less knowledge or less professional abilities. It only means that our education was in a language that was comprehensible to us as we grew up and became professionals. In fact, nobody questions the intelligence of English-speakers when you come to our countries and often times refuse to learn at least basic phrases to communicate with the people who live there.
Here are three other things that US Americans need to understand about people who speak other languages. First, most of us do speak English. Our accents only mean that English is a second, third and sometimes even fourth language (I had a seminary professor for whom this was the case, where English was the fourth language he learned.) The use of English along our own mother tongues only points to the fact that we are bi- or multi-lingual. How many languages you, English-speaker, are able to read, understand and speak?
Second, the truth is that every chance we have, we use to learn how to pronounce words, how to expand our vocabulary, and how to find the correct way to use your language in all contexts. Have you thought how difficult it is for a foreigner who was only exposed to “proper” English to figure out some of the common idioms and day-to-day phrases of your language? Take, for instance, “cut the mustard”. I know what the verb “cut” is, and I know that “mustard” is a condiment. How in the world am I supposed to know that “cut the mustard” means “to succeed”?! My mental references for mustard do not even allow for cutting! Mustard, as a seed, is too small to be able to be cut, and as paste, there is no need to be cut as it spreads. Do you follow my thoughts? (There’s another one!) I can tell you, from my personal experience, that I even take time to listen and practice pronouncing a word over and over and over again trying to find the correct way to pronounce it.
Third, there is the issue of pronunciation and hearing. You, who grew up listening to words in your language all the time, might be able to catch the subtle difference between “leave”, “live” and “leaf” but, trust me; it all sounds exactly the same to me! I need to pay attention to the context in which you used these words to find which one you used. How hard it is for you to do the same exercise? All of this is tiring, but it is exactly what non-English speakers have to do every day of our lives in this country (and what English-speakers have to do every day if they live in countries outside of the English-speaking world.)
There are two final thoughts I want to share with all of you. First, is the issue of regional accents within the United States. Most people fret about and want to change the accent of foreigners, but you seldom hear about changing the accents of people from different regions within the country. There are not-too-small differences between the accents of an Alaskan, a West Virginian from the mountains, a person from Brooklyn and one from Massachusetts. Yet, nobody will dare recommending that we all come to an agreement about speaking with the same “standard” English accent. Why? Because there is no such thing as a standard accent in any language! All languages have regional differences! Hence the ridiculous idea of asking British, Jamaicans, Australians, South Africans and Trinidadians to change their accents… they all speak English with regionalisms and it is a matter of adapting our ears to those regionalisms in order to understand each other.
Finally, my accent is, to me, a point of pride. It tells me that I speak more than one language, that I am able to communicate with more people than mono-lingual persons, and that I bring with me to this country a history. It defines who I am at this moment of my life and it makes me feel part of the global community, not just of a small community of either people of the United States or people of Puerto Rico. I can drive through the northern border of the USA and make myself understand just as I can cross the southern border and still engage in conversations. (Unfortunately, I do not speak French; therefore any visit to Quebec would be an adventure… And one that I would gladly welcome!)
My best advice to those who complain about my accent, or about any accent for that matter? Get over it.