I couldn’t wait to get rid of my German accent when I left to study abroad in the U.S. for two semesters. But now that has changed. How come?
For a long time, I used to regard my German accent in English as a flaw (and, frankly, I still do sometimes).
Graduating from my high school, at which students still broke the “he-she-it-the-s-must-fit” rule in advanced English classes, I encountered a huge challenge when I started my first semester of British and American language and literature as my major at University of Hamburg. To compensate for what I considered to be bad English, I enrolled in extra grammar courses, actively practiced thinking in English and consume as much content in English as possible while being painfully aware that my accent was always present when I spoke. It made feel self-conscious and prevented me from openly talking to English native speakers I encountered at the faculty since, in my head, they would notice all my mistakes immediately and judge my abilities.
To be clear, by accent I do not only mean pronunciation issues: Besides obvious exaggerations such as “Ze kitts heff many frents” (The kids have many friends.) and “squi-rreh-rhel” (squirrel; yes, it is tricky), I consider the usage of words in an uncommon context or typically German straight forwardness (“Can you give me the butter?” vs. “Could you pass me the butter, please?”) and weird syntax such as this convoluted sentence just as much as part of my accent.
For most of my life, I felt that my accent negatively impacted the way I communicate in English by distracting from what I had to say while at the same time making me feel vulnerable by exposing my foreignness and country of origin; the type of private information where I would want to get to choose if and when to share with others. This last aspect never really became an issue for as long as I lived in Germany, since almost everyone wasn’t a native speaker. When I started to prepare for my year abroad, however, it became clear to me that people would immediately notice my accent and that it would become more of an indicator of my foreignness. I also saw going abroad as a chance to finally “train away” (German at it again!) my language flaws, smoothing out the surface of my verbal English abilities, and thereby finally obtaining what had been taught to us in school as “proper English”.
So, I made my way across the pond and enrolled in classes at Smith College, Massachusetts. A few months into my stay I had a couple of realizations regarding my accent. First: I had a really hard time getting rid of it, often because I struggled to hear differences in my pronunciation from the pronunciation of native speakers. Second: Everyone speaks differently. Regional dialects, a speech impairment, foreign accents, idiolects; it was all a colorful mixture of differences that made listening more exciting than challenging. Third: Most people didn’t really care about it. Although many noticed my accent they were always too polite to immediately ask about it and some never asked at all, which was both a relieving and disappointing experience for me. But probably the most impactful experience that changed the way I looked at my accent was in one session of a class about adapting novels for films taught by Professor Ambreen Hai.
As part of this class we read “The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri, a novel about an Indian family named Ganguli that migrates to the United States and the children who grow up trying to negotiate between their American and Indian identity and their struggles with it. Early into the novel, on page 7, the mother Ashima is in labor, expecting to give birth to the novel’s main protagonist, her son Gogol. Her nurse Patty is assisting her, when this happens:
“After a minute they continue on, toward the nurses’ station.
“Hoping for a boy or a girl?” Patty asks.
“As long as there are ten finger and ten toe,” Ashima replies.
Patty smiles, a little too widely, and suddenly Ashima realizes her error, knows that she should have said “fingers” and “toes.” This error pains her almost as much as her last contraction. English had been her subject. In Calcutta, before she was married, she was working toward a college degree. She used to tutor neighborhood schoolchildren in their homes, on their verandas and beds, helping them to memorize Tennyson and Wordsworth, to pronounce words like sign and cough, to understand the difference between Aristotelian and Shakespearean tragedy. But in Bengali, a finger can also mean fingers, a toe toes.”
Reading the novel for the first time on my own, this passage had already stood out to me. The feeling that the character Ashima experiences here, the mixture of pain, frustration and shame (I imagine) is something I call the “I-should-be-knowing-this-by-now-feeling”: This feeling of inadequacy when it comes to expressing something in a language different from your own, the feeling of “we-had-this-in-school”, the feeling of “I-know-I-looked-up-this-word-before”. Like Ashima, I study English and I too sometimes feel the discrepancy between receiving an education and actually incorporating what I learned and making it my own. I felt as if I understood her.
In class, our professor decided to single out the passage quoted above too. After a few minutes she made a point of how the accent also represents ones cultural, national and personal identity and how Ashima’s struggle with the English language represents her bigger struggle with adapting to living in the United States and incorporating it as part of a complicating identity. My professor went on to say that some research suggests that if one struggles to get rid of an accent it might be because they subconsciously cling to their “old self”, their identity that was formed by the country and language they grew up with. She then got personal by saying that she and other colleagues made it a conscious decision to keep their accents, since they would represent an important part of them and that they want to embrace rather than hide.
Sitting in her class I was dumbfounded. Deciding to keep your accent? To embrace it as part of yourself? I had never thought of my accent as that. Looking back at how I would always dismiss it as an annoying quarrelsome adjunct that always gets in the way whenever I try to express myself, I realized that I had tried to dismiss an essential part of myself: my German self.
Now, there is of course a difference between personal expression and academic writing. When teachers correct my English in classes, they of course don’t try to disrupt my German identity but try to help me to develop a better sense of style or a more refined way of speaking. But the two aspects are intrinsically linked, and trying to separate them would be a fruitless attempt. Ideally, someone’s character and identity shines through in their writing and in their everyday speech as well. I do not want to encourage mispronouncing words or bad grammar here but between obvious mistakes and disregarding and suppressing the influence of your native language on your second language there must be a balanced area, where one can speak and write while embracing their linguistic and cultural roots.
So, what is the takeaway from all this? Learning a language takes time and patience with yourself (something, I admit, that I am not particularly good at) and that you never finish learning. Whenever I mention that I study English and went abroad, people are quick to assume that my English must be “perfect” by now, when in fact I have a lot of insecurities about it. Trying not to be too hard on myself while continuing to develop my English skills is not easy for me. I still hit mental walls. I still stumble over my words while speaking. I still can’t find the right word in a particular moment and once the thought slips away I am left helpless. And that’s okay.
Number two concerns identity. Whether or not one clings to the old self I am not to judge but to acknowledge that the way I speak is influenced by the way I was raised within a particular culture and not to judge myself because of my speaking manners or the general way I express myself is not American enough (or any English-speaking culture for that matter) is probably a good start. The idea of identity as it is, is already complicated enough, and nobody should have to feel the need to hide or suppress essential aspects of them. Instead, I should consider it as a way of flavoring my speech so that I don’t sound like a soulless product of a particular school but like the thing everyone is trying to figure out for themselves: myself.
– article and picture by Lucy