Accent Anxiety

It’s late and I can’t sleep. My insomnia’s gorging on late night Discovery Channel. The crowd pleasing programming has retired for the night, leaving me with their less talented cousins. Tonight it’s “Moonshiners”, which as the name would suggest follows the ups and mostly downs of down-n-out hillbillies trying to make money through the production of illicit alcohol.

It isn’t entertaining, but I watch anyway, hoping the fumes from its dullness will carry me away like anti-smelling salts.

I watch in a near vegetive state, wondering which had the strongest influence on their current career choice: Their lack of employment opportunities, or their accents. I half doze and imagine a fully qualified ‘Jim Bob’ going for an interview in the corporate hospitality sector – cursing his decision to conclude his Powerpoint presentation with the line “…and y’all be shurda come back again, ya hear!”

Back in the UK I befriended a work colleague. He already had a masters and was studying further to become a fully qualified pharmacist. He told me about his background. His family is higher middle class. His father is a well respected doctor and his brother an executive banker. Their opulent home in its affluent location has staff and he generally has no reason to lift a thing. His family, their home and wealth are all back in Pakistan – unredeemable status currencies in the UK.

His English wasn’t great; coloured by his strong Pakistani accent. It was precisely that accent that lead less educated colleagues to talk to him as though he were ever so slightly stupid. Not in an overtly disrespectful way, but in that nuanced, polite faced manner. The sort of prejudice you can’t quite quantify in a tribunal; smart prejudice.

For some, it seems a bad accent and limited vocabulary equates to stupidity. It troubled me then, but here in Denmark, as a foreigner it’s become even more concerning.

I wonder whether my Danish accent will sound ever so slightly Jim-Bobish. I wonder whether my future children will find embarrassment in their father who sounds like a Danish Borat. I worry that a fear of sounding stupid will render me paralysed from the mouth; only able to reply in my occasionally half eloquent English.

Back in the UK I believed all immigrants should learn the language of the land. Not in a colonial, culturally irradiating way, but simply in order to promote integration. I fear now with my tables well and truly turned, I may be less willing to take my own advice.

My three years of FREE Danish language tuition (high taxes aren’t all bad) are starting soon, so I guess we’ll find out.

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“Y’all be shurda come back to this here blog again, ya hear!”
Image courtesy of dsc.discovery.com

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About The Other Me

Londoner born and raised. Living in Denmark. Occasional singer/songwriter, music fan, nearly author, recovering procrastinator. To read or listen to the amateur stuff I call my art, click on the picture and press the links to either my FB, Wordpress or bandcamp pages. Thanks
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8 Responses to Accent Anxiety

  1. Wow. May have to reblog this cos I know EXACTLY what you mean. I relocated to Martinique, and started work three days after landing. Having not practised my French with any kind of regularity since a holiday 3 years earlier, I spent the first 3-5 months terrified of speaking French to my colleagues (we work in an English environment) lest I sound less intelligent, and therefore capable, just like a non-native speaker of British English would indeed sound in London. I too disliked the accent-intelligent causal link when I was in London, and became terrified of being at the wrong end of it when I moved.

    I also became pally with a bunch of stoner-type guys early on, which after a while prompted a fear of sounding too much like, well, an underemployed man, whereas I’m used to people peering at me as an unusually articulate intelligent woman. I genuinely worried that I was using expressions and vocabulary I’d picked up from them at work, where they were less appropriate to our formal environment.

    I think some of the concerns link to coming from a place where social organising is openly class-based and in which accent is a definitive element (and being accustomed to having the ‘right’ accent for your environs); not everywhere is as harsh. Where I am, for example, my foreignness is exotic (seriously. my South London twang is sexy here). Although admittedly I’m a smiley young woman from a developed country; people from poorer parts of the Caribbean do not get the same welcome as me. I guess here I fall into the equivalent of the ‘Australian’ category of immigrants, a well-off distant cousin, but from far away, as opposed to an unwelcome poor relative.

    Some of the paranoia is legit; your communications really aren’t as good as someone who was born and raised in your new home. It comes with pros and cons though; when I went back to London, I found the noise pollution shocking. Suddenly, I could understand every over-long uninteresting conversation I could hear on the bus, and follow word-for-word the rants of parents screaming at kids; without realising it, I’d become used to zoning out when people weren’t talking to me. In English-world, banality attacked me from all angles!

    On a happy note, I got to hanging with some university types and found that actually, my French was fine; and once I was into the swing of it, most were actually very impressed with my linguistic skills. That’s supposed to be encouraging for your Danish classes; it ‘shows’ that I studied the French language.

    Ummm…apologies this is a really long comment. Got a bit overexcited as have only recently gotten over my Accent Anxiety which no one seemed to understand! Although I still need a metaphorical gun to my head to write emails in French.

    • The Other Me says:

      Love it! Not just me then. It’s funny you mention your ability to zone out. At the moment Danish is something I hear but only on the periphery. There’s no real connection. It’s that thing I’ll get around to sometime soon. I’m looking forward to actually being a part of the environment around me as opposed to someone who kind of plugs in intermittently if that makes sense. I’ll have to follow you and get up to speed on your Martinique adventure. Thanks for passing through.

  2. Glad to have found your blog! I definitely recommend the Danish classes, things will slot into place very quickly if you’re living there; phrases I apparently learned in A level French have marked me out as someone ‘who has studied at a high level as opposed to picked up.

    I also found it quite interesting when I started mixing groups, hanging with older as well as younger people, and those from different occupational groups, and picking up the different expressions. Language and politics are also happy bedfellows here; I’ve recently been told that my French is now ‘good enough’ it’s time to focus on learning creole! I hope they only speak one language in Denmark…

    When I was in Thailand and learning the language from scratch, I started to notice that my efforts correlated closely to my emotions. When I was having a fabulous time, I wanted to engage with everything around me, and my efforts with Thai quadrupled. When it was all a bit sh*t, it was bare minimum communication. I don’t think it was necessarily a good thing, and it was quite unconscious, but just something to be wary of. Held og lykke! (and when in doubt, there’s always google!)

    • The Other Me says:

      The good thing about Danish is that being a sovereign language to such a small country, there isn’t the usual outside influences we hear in English. Not such an evolving vocabulary. Might make it easier to grasp, although it’s one of those languages where the slightest change in pronunciation can change one word to something completely different.

  3. Renars says:

    Whether we like it or not, we always judge the book by its cover and the way people speak will form your instant opinion about them. As they say, you don’t get second chance to make the first impression. Social psychology is a very powerful subject.
    P.s. love reading your blog.

  4. Reblogged this on movingblack and commented:
    It seems so long ago now that I was a woman of leisure blogging about how my 9-5 was how I funded my travel adventures. 9-5 has recently become all-consuming so time to write seems to have disappeared with time to think! Fortunately I have found a blogger who has articulated one of my major sources of emigration neurosis so perfectly I think a reblog is in order. A fellow South Londoner who also recently moved elsewhere (to Denmark), dude coined the term ‘Accent Anxiety’ when detailing some of the concerns a person living in a language which isn’t their own might have. As good as my French is these days, I have had to accept I can’t go to a dinner party like a normal person. Large groups + new people + alcohol = communication issues. I felt like he heard me. Hopefully you will too…

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