Joining mainstream USA with a foreign accent is an obstacle that can be overcome.
Some people may hear a foreign accent as cute; others as humorous, still others as a disorder. I say this, because in my College Public Speaking class, a classmate referred to my accent as a speech impediment. I do not see my accent as cute, humorous or a disorder, but I do see it as an obstacle.
I did not find myself being a stranger or a newcomer at first, because I felt safe and confident with my husband around. It didn’t take long for me to discover though that I was lacking. I felt a missing link as I attempted to join mainstream American society. Being uprooted from my native surroundings, my husband, George, was my only connection to the outside world in the beginning. Of course, the spoken English language was my main drawback. I did not grasp the lingo of everyday use. And to me, everybody talked too fast.
The first thing George did when he returned from his 21-day vacation in the Philippine Islands was to introduce me to his boss, who was puttering in his rose garden. As he started to talk, George said, “Well, An-on, it was a wonderful trip. I brought home a bride.”
My ears perked up when I heard the name “An-on.” It boggled me. I felt silly asking George what Mr. Berg’s first name was, so I tried to pull data from the back of my head, but nothing close to it came out.
He mentioned his boss’s name in one of his letters but I knew it was not “An-on.” As I tried to visualize the name that he had written, the red light suddenly flashed. Oh, yeah. Anton Berg! Anton with a “t” in the middle. We had a good laugh over this tete-a-tete on our way home.
I was already working for Seth Thomas Clock Company in the winter of 1977 in Thomaston, Connecticut. One day, it started snowing and everybody called home to see how bad their driveways were. I called home too and asked how deep the snow was in our driveway. My officemate, who sat next to me, started laughing and I could not understand why. What did I say that was so funny? Then, when she realized that I was offended by her giggles, she said I was “cute” and pointed out that I said, “dip” for deep. She apologized, but I felt small and wished I melted.
I used to take offense every time my husband looked at me funny when I said something that did not sound like the “Yankee way of talking” as my husband is a Connecticut Yankee. It made me inhibited. When he noticed that I stopped talking, he thought about his insensitivity towards my pronunciations and backed off. He shifted and used a gentle approach to clue me in on how to say a word the “Yankee way.”
At first, this suited me perfectly but as time went on, my thinking process underwent a metamorphosis. Lying awake in the middle of the night, myself and I had a good conversation, “You are now in an English-speaking society. How do you cope with pressures around you? What are you going to do for survival? Are you going to let your accent deter you from getting a career you always dreamed of?”
My consciousness answered back, "Lighten up. Accept the criticisms gracefully. Allow yourself to be a child again so you can grow at a pace that will enable you to blend with your new environment."
That self-searching gave me the impetus to turn 360 degrees. I acted like a kindergartener, learning all over again. When I was not sure of the pronunciation of a word, I went to my husband to hear him pronounce it his way because learning from the dictionary was totally different from listening to a native American speak. The first few times I did this with him, he raised his brow. Then, he got the message that I want to learn to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Since that time, learning to pronounce the English language all over again has been rewarding. I still have that foreign-born-accent as anybody can readily notice, but I have slowly reconciled myself to the fact that I will not get rid of it wholly. Not in this lifetime anyway. I am still working on it though.
The downside about this “attitude lift” is that my husband teased me without mercy about it. He told jokes about our interactions, especially when he has a drink or two, like at a Christmas party a few years back. I cannot remember how it started. He was telling the group about his experience the first time we made the bed together. After we removed the soiled sheets from the bed, I said to him,
“George, where is the ‘shit’?”
“You know, the- the fitted shit for the bed.”
“Oh, the sheet!”
He did not finish his story because the party thought that was funny and everyone thundered in laughter.
It took me a while to hear the difference between “it” and “eat,” “mad” and “mod” or mud,” “dip” from “deep,” “hag” from “hog” or ‘hug,” or even “beach” from “bitch,” and so on. For a person with no profane words in her vocabulary, it was bewildering and amazing, as well as embarrassing to discover those foul words by accident.
As a calendar clerk for the Superior Court, I handled calls from attorneys. One day, the supervisor, approached me and asked me if I had spoken to some attorney, by any chance, because this attorney claimed that he spoke to a calendar clerk but he neglected to get the clerk’s name. As the supervisor tried to find out who the calendar clerk was by a process of elimination, she asked the attorney if the calendar clerk he spoke to had a foreign accent. “Yes,” he promptly responded. The supervisor’s first thought, of course was, it has to be Miriam. How could she think otherwise? After all, English is my second language, and I give myself away the moment I open my mouth.
“No, I don’t remember talking to that attorney,” I said.
She continued to ask the rest of the clerks.
Sylvia, a native Pennsylvanian, who has lived in California for at least thirty years, piped up, “That was me.”
Oops. The laugh was on someone else for a change!