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Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Expats and accents


Accents are another part of the expat experience for adults, and it’s the main way people in our new country can identify us: We open our mouths and they know where we’re from, more or less. It turns out, there are reasons this is true.

In the ASAP Science video above, they explain that after age 12, accents don’t really change. From what I’ve seen here in New Zealand in others and myself, I’d say that’s true. I’m aware of this because we all speak English (more or less…), so it’s more obvious for me to hear the differences, and even to be able to notice an American’s accent when the person is speaking New Zealand English.

A lot of this is about vowels, and sometimes it’s necessary for immigrants to change their vowels in order to be understood. For example, while plenty of Americans pronounce tomato as New Zealanders do, “tomAHto”, I didn’t, so I changed my pronunciation to be better understood. In this case, they’d probably know what I meant if I said my native “toMAYto”, but it would be jarring.

However, when it comes to my own name, changing pronunciation was important. If I said “Arthur” as I normally would, with both R’s, people would often stop and ask me to repeat it, or to spell it. That’s because, except for a particular part of the South Island, Kiwis don’t have an “R” following vowels (well, actually, they do, but it’s far too subtle for most Americans to pick up). So, I started pronouncing my name something like “AH-thuh” (that’s an approximation, because I, too, use the subtle R’s). When I did that, people understood me and got my name right.

Unrelated to accent specifically, it helps if expats adopt Kiwi slang, too. Some of this is easy enough—chips for French fries, tomato sauce for ketchup, for example—but some of that is affected by accent, too.

The best example of Kiwi slang being affected by accent is the word “mate”, which is used similarly to the way some people might say “dude” or “bro”. To this day, when I hear an American say “mate”, I cringe, because it just sounds so wrong to me. I have no idea what Kiwis think when they hear it (because I’ve never asked), but if the accent is obvious to me, it is to them, too, and it may be every bit as jarring to them, too. Or, maybe not.

Over the years, I’ve picked up enough Kiwi slang, and deliberately changed enough vowels and such, that I sometimes confuse people, and they think I’m Canadian (which was kind of helpful in the days of Bush/Cheney, who were NOT popular among ordinary New Zealanders). I have no idea whether this is also true for Americans trying to speak non-English languages.

I came to realise a few years ago that I apparently don’t have the capacity to learn a foreign language (beyond a few words and simple phrases). I spent all four years in high school studying German, and several times afterward I studied it on my own. Despite that, I still can’t understand a simple conversation in German nor read even a children’s story with any real comprehension.

But the video explains another reason why people like me have so much difficultly in learning some languages, like Te Reo Māori: It uses vowels, phonemes, and diphthongs that aren’t used in English, and so, we have trouble hearing them properly, let alone replicating the sound. Add that and my inability to learn and remember the vocabulary and grammar of another, non-English language, and my chances of ever learning Te Reo—or any other language—are slim to none.

One might say that just because I’ve failed to learn even the most basic German after more than four decades of on-and-off effort doesn’t positively mean I can’t learn some other language. But, it kinda suggests it’s highly improbable.

Accent is the one thing that continues to mark expats as foreigners, which makes it another part of the expat experience. So to speak.

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