I've always been good at accents
I’ve always been pretty good at accents.
From a young age, I would listen to and try to imitate how people around me spoke, how their voices inflected, the roundness of their vowels or the guttural nature of their ‘r’s. The pool for my experiments was pretty large living in Germany. Not only did we have a huge variety of regional differences from North to South and East (behind the wall, of course) to West. And in just a day’s drive, you could be in any one of about 12 different countries. We took advantage of that and made at least one big road trip a year either to a different country or to a different region of a country we had previously visited.
At that time (we’re talking before the EU here, folks), not everybody in Europe spoke English. Those who did often spoke it badly. In fact, English was our “secret” language, the one we spoke in the grocery store when we didn’t want people to understand us. My ear became accustomed to hearing Dutch and French and Italian and Russian and, once I started school in England at age 12, accents from every part of the UK as well. I learned to read basic signs on the highway or in restaurants, and I always tried to learn a few of the basic words in the country’s native language so that I could thank people for serving me or ask for directions to the bathroom.
My sense of sound has always been my strongest sense. I know that growing up bilingually – everything inside the house took place in English and everything outside of it in German – and being the child and grandchild of musicians and music lovers helped cultivate this, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to have lived so fully in two cultures and two languages for so much of my childhood.
At first being good at accents was more of a “party trick” than anything else. I could easily pretend to be British (and was often mistaken as such, I’m proud to say), or do a little “bit” as Claudette the French teacher or Gertrude, the ferocious German Hausfrau. It wasn’t until later in my life that I realized what this talent actually meant for me and to me as I started needing to navigate the world outside the safety of the family unit. Certainly, entertaining people and making them laugh is nothing to sneeze at. Laughter is the best medicine for most things, people would say, and so I do not brush off the fact that my affinity for accents and impressions was a talent and a gift in and of itself.
But, you see, it taught me something else really wonderful, too. It taught me about what it means to be part of a community, whether you “come from” that community or not. (And please don’t get me started on “coming from” somewhere… that’s a story for another time)!
As I continued my travels, specifically during my junior year of high school when I lived in Barcelona and then when I spent time in Chile during college and then again, later in life, I realized that my abilities to mold myself into the culture of the place I was living allowed me a deeper and more immediate connection with the people around me. In Spain, I spoke like a Spaniard (lisping and all) but when I got to Chile, I was (playfully) mocked and decided on the spot to assume the identity of a Chilean. I carefully studied the way Chileans do not pronounce the ‘s’ at the ends of words: one “casa” or two “casas” sound exactly the same. I listened to how the pitch of chilean Spanish is much higher than that of other Spanishes I’d come into contact with around the world… Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Argentina, Paraguay, New York City. It was melodic in many ways but curt in others. I had to learn that what meant “I would like to pick up the baby” in Spanish Spanish means “I would like to…” (nope, not gonna finish that one here!) When speaking with those you know well, verbs are conjugated verbs differently. Asking a good friend how they are becomes “Cómo estai?” as opposed to “Cómo estás?”
With the gift of a flexible ear, it didn’t take me long to master it, and pretty soon I was being taken for being Chilean myself. Now, when Spanish speakers hear me, they are a little confused but most are able to hit the nail on the head and realize that what’s left of my accent is still from my beloved Chile.
I tell this story not because I think my unique abilities make me any more able to form community or more qualified to talk about it but rather because I have realized that it’s actually the careful and purposeful use of my sense of sound and sight that help me connect to people and cultures when I travel. I am certainly not able to imitate a good Irish (or Northern Irish and yes, they’re different, thank you very much) accent – just ask my main squeeze – or an Australian one, and I have zero hope on the continent of Asia. Spanish and South American culture happen to be close to my heart and soul and so “becoming” a person who speaks the Spanish from where I am is easy for me to do… with the help of my ears and eyes.
I thought about this again very recently when, one day recently at Chrysalis, where I volunteer helping people craft resumes and gain interview skills to be able to rejoin or uplevel in the job market, and I found myself helping two wonderful Brazilian sisters. Their accents were extremely thick… so thick, in fact, that I could barely understand them at times. This happens very rarely to me, and so I set about trying to figure out a creative way that I could help them in the hour we were given. Where could I start, I asked myself? What do I have in my toolkit to help them?
And I remembered to use those tools that help me when I’m navigating a new place and a new language: my eyes and my ears. I started observing how they used their tongues and their lips to form words, how they were shaping vowels, where and how they were using their air when speaking and where they were placing their word emphases. I found I was using the exact same tools that I use when I am trying to imitate a sound or phrasing from a new language or accent!
One of the things I love most about working with my senses on a daily basis is that I am continuously amazed at how MUCH they are integral to our connection to the world around us. It’s not just about putting your feet in the sand to feel the power of the earth, or stopping to smell the roses. YES, these are important and YES, we must do them. BUT… our senses guide us in so many more ways and so, I issue you this challenge: next time you feel uncomfortable somewhere, whether in a new country, at a concert for a new artist or type of music with which you’re not familiar, or you’re meeting a new boss for the first time, use and trust your senses to find connection with that person, place, or thing. Use and trust your senses to help guide you to better communication and deeper community.