In May, I will have lived in the UK for 11 years.
A few days ago someone commented on the fact that I still have my American accent. I hear this from time to time. In England, I think I will always have this accent, but to my family I’m always acquiring an English accent.
So, the conversation always goes like this:
âHow long have you been in the UK?â
âJust over ten years.â
âYou haven’t lost your accent at all.â
âWell, I practice monologues in front of the mirror before leaving the house every morning.â This is my canned witty remark. I always say it. It’s a reflex now. Kind of like how you automatically say âfineâ when someone asks how you are. I’ve had this exact exchange (verbatim) at least a dozen times.
The truth is that I’ve lived in lots of places where there was a different local accent to the too-much-tv-so-you-can’t-really-pinpoint-where-I’m-from accent that I have. I spent most of my life in California, but I’ve always lived for at least a year or more in Massachusetts, Texas, and Hawaii. Each place has it’s own accent. But I’ve always felt I would be mocking people if I tried to talk like them.
I remember when I was in the Army stationed in Hawaii. There was a guy who rarely left the base, but came in one night with a Hawaiian accent. âHey brah,â he said and tried to work it into normal conversation. âLet’s go get lunch, yeah brah?â It was disgustingly phony. All you wanted to say was âYeah, I’d like to go to lunch. But you’re an idiot.â
There was also a time I was doing volunteer work for the campaign of a guy running for Tax Assessor Collector in San Antonio, Texas. He didn’t have a very strong Texas accent, at least no stronger than other people I knew there. But when he spoke to possible voters or contributors on his campaign, he would adopt a heavy Texas accent say things like âAw, shucksâ and get very folksy. I hated to watch it. He changed right in front of me.
I think about these people when I think about trying to put on an English accent.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some words I’ve started using that I didn’t realise I started using. Like I go on a holiday instead of a vacation. I go to the toilet instead of the bathroom. These are things I didn’t adopt intentionally. They are very similar to the words I used in the Army. I went on leave and I utilised the latrine. I think this is why my family back home thinks I have an English accent.
There are certain things I’ve never gotten used to. For example, I don’t ever say cheers for thanks. And I don’t ever use the word mate to talk about my friends (with one notable exception). These all felt very phony to me. If I tried to use them, everyone will see how hard I’m trying to be like them. So I don’t.
A few years ago, I did buy an audio book called Access Accents: An Accent Training Resource for Actors. They didn’t have an English Accents for Software Developers, so I had to go with this. There were tapes for all kinds of English dialects, but I chose Recieved Pronunciation: the posh one. I tried the exercises and tried to use the accent with people who didn’t know me. When I used my new phony accent with people who do know me, I felt like they may have been offended and that I was somehow mimicking and mocking them. The English accent fad didn’t last long. I’ve seen enough tv and movies where I hear people talk about terrible English accents by American actors, that it actually scares me to try. Anyway, the audio book wasn’t very good, if you are interested.
I once met a struggling actor when I was working in a factory packing boxes of yoghurt. He was a student, actually, and was working to support his expensive taste in clothes and grooming (I never knew before that anyone would spend more than Â£10 for a haircut). He was very interested in my accent and was working to try to adopt an American accent for when he was a famous actor. One night, he asked if I would like to hear it. Sure, I said and waited with anticipation. Then, he started talking in the most nasally and annoying voice I think I’ve ever heard. I tried not to show it, but it was actually insulting. It’s bad enough listening to yourself on tape, but far worse to hear someone trying to talk like you. That put me off a lot. I would hate to make someone feel like that by attempting their accent.
For so many years in the States, I’ve watched people fawn over the English accent. It’s sounds so naive now, but I think I was expecting people to like my accent when I got here. It’s different, though. The American accent is often seen as annoying by people outside the US.
But, ultimately, I know my own experience in the States with people who have non-local accents: people assume they are slow and don’t fully understand
what’s going on. They want to correct how you say something, but then don’t want to be rude. Perhaps I should try harder to adopt the local accent. But after nearly 11 years, it’s slow in coming.