Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"What A Cute Accent, Where Are You From?"

When I asked my linguistic professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia how I could get rid of my Israeli accent, he wasn’t optimistic about my chances. I further inquired if a strong accent indicated a lack of musical talent. He answered that based on what he had read it was a matter of personal identity. There were some people, he called them the Chamaeleon type, who could speak with almost no trace of a foreign accent. In contrast,  I probably, subconsciously, didn’t want to get rid of my Israeli identity. This explanation was reassuring, it was a relief to understand that it hadn't been my fault. I am not sure if this is still a valid theory, but I am not going to look for conflicting evidence.
I was reminded of the on-going difficulties with my foreign accent when I heard an episode of This American Life number 203:”Recordings for Someone” from Jan 11, 2002

In the second segment of this program a student who stutters makes a recording for someone with whom he talks on the phone whenever he orders pizza. In that message he explains how anxious he becomes when he encounters impatience and intolerance on the phone, and as a result his stattering becomes more severe.   
Similarly, I cannot recall a phone conversation during which I wasn’t asked “I beg your pardon?” But still  talking on the phone had always been easier than the initial face to face interaction. Since on the phone people only heard my voice they still were able to concentrate on what I had to say.
In the small towns where we used to live there weren’t that many  foreigners, and  since I fit the Caucasian square on official forms, people just didn’t expect me to speak with a foreign accent. It usually threw them off and then came the question: “I beg your pardon?”  Normally once I had repeated the sentence, the next comment was: ”what a cute accent, where are you from?”
I never thought of my accent as "cute," it was who I was. In the US it was also the conspicuous sign of my foreignness, which otherwise could have gone unnoticed. It went with me everywhere: to the grocery store, to the gas station, to my girl's school, to work etc. Some people used to talk to me in a slow loud voice as though my accent made me hard of hearing.
Others were suspicious of foreigners, or strangers as the sociologist Georg Simmel calls them. He defines "‘stranger’ as a person who comes today and stays tomorrow, whose position in a group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it which do not and cannot stem from the group itself."
Simmel's mention of the stranger's position in the group, and the issue of belonging were key factors in our decision to go back to Israel after 14 years in the US.
When I heard the student whose stutter worsened whenever he sensed antagonism, I realized, that stuttering and foreign accent are more similar than I had ever thought. I was lucky to be able to find a place where I am understood, sadly he does not have such a safe haven.  
Lack of accessibility comes in all colors, shapes, and sounds, often it is just a polite substitute to the word discrimination. We still have a long way to go until everyone is let in.

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