That accent that fluctuates depending on who I am talking to.
As I started preparing for the first course I will be teaching at Boston University, I leafed through The Norton Samplerin search for an essay to discuss on the first day of class. I came across Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” which has become a classic in its own right and an essential piece when teaching English Language Learners. My draw to Tan’s work is two-fold: Her accessible style and the fact that she is a San Jose State University graduate, just like me.
Tan’s essay begins with her awareness of how inaccessible her English is to her mother with whom she spoke a different English at home. This sudden awareness of how she oscillates between two Englishes becomes the basis of her essay– a piece she uses to help draw the reader’s attention to the different Englishes spoken by the different speakers of English. (Englishes: A word–still underlined by any word processing program–that seeks to encompass all the variations of English spoken locally and globally)
But this essay seems like a good, albeit outdated, springboard that sheds light on what most of us, speakers of English an additional language do: Use various Englishes with the the various people in our lives, depending on who they are and their level of proficiency in English.
Yet this oscillation is not linear. It is layered and complex. It conjugates words from one’s native tongue following English rules. It also adapts English words to the native tongue using the native language’s grammar rules. “To vacuum” becomes “Nhawver” in Lebanese taking the word Hoover and adapting it to Arabic.
This is not it. I have experienced an additional level of oratory complexity that is outside the control of my neurodiverse (another “underlined in red” word) brain. I cannot help but shift accents depending on who I am talking to. It is not just my English that changes: From Liberian to Lebanese; English spoken with English people, British people, Americans; English spoken in the gulf; English spoken with the Lebanese who live in the Arabian gulf; Inglish; Hinglish; Spanglish. Yes, all these Englishes are part of my repertoire. A repository of expressions and usages.
It is my accent that also changes.
I feel compelled to roll my r’s and to annunciate my t’s whenever I am talking to my mother or brother. I try to avoid hearing “lawa2et nee3a” (she twisted her jaw) “to speak to us,” or “t2amraket faj2a” (she turned American), so I speak like they do. I cannot but shift to Liberian English when talking to my sisters. For example, I begin every sentence with “Ah seh” and end it with “ya woo.” I respond to “Ah Bee” like I respond to “3abeer” or “Abi,” and know who the caller is based on the name they use or the accent they are using before my brain registers the voice. It helps because everyone at home has the same voice, save for my brother, of course.
Accent shifting is my coping mechanism. To avoid undesired criticism, I shift my usage and pronunciation. I use French pronunciation of words while talking with my “Frenchie” Lebanese friends because I cannot shake off the mortification I felt when one girl once corrected my pronunciation of bandana to sound like the French version of the word. “Yeeeee! She said ‘bandana’ instead of ‘bon-da-naa,'” I remember her saying. I felt ignorant and, of course, stupid by default.
But how does my brain decide which accent to use and with whom? I guess what I am doing is somehow mirroring people’s accents.
Is it just the desire to fit in? To feel accepted? To avoid criticism? I am both fascinated and appalled by my need to avoid being criticized for my language capacities (or lack of), even at this age. Still, whenever I talk about accents in academic circles, I get this blank stare, like I have lost whatever marbles I had held on to until this age. I get ignored. My concerns get dismissed.
It was not until this past March at the TESOL convention that I knew these concerns were valid. I attended this talk by a PhD student, Vito Miao, whose research focuses on accent and how that causes discrimination against ELL speakers. In his talk, he tackled how other ELLs view us depending on our accents; how they become more willing to learn from us if our accent resembles that of a native speaker. How we gain authority just based on how native we sound.
I felt relieved. There is research out there that validates my concerns. But do I need research to validate my concerns? Yes. Because I need others to understand that this is an impediment. If you do not have to navigate registers, accents, or that endless repository of Englishes, then you are privileged and need to recognize that privilege. It is not only because your native language is English, but because you do not have to worry about the English spoken at home being different from that spoken at school or work.
Miao, Y. (2022, March 22). Mitigating discrimination against accented speakers: An exploratory study [paper presentation]. TESOL 2022 Doctoral Research Forum, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.