How I Learned to Love My Foreign Accent
I distinctly remember getting rid of my Polish accent — or at least starting to — at the ages of five and six, while growing up in Canada. If you want my David Copperfield, I was born in London, Ontario to newly landed Polish immigrants and spent my early childhood in somewhat isolated immigrant communities. Polish is my native language and English didn’t really come to me until I was six or seven. Our family moved around a lot; it didn’t give me the greatest notion of stability and commitment by the time I reached adulthood. But it gave me good stories for the dinner table, and memories tinged with Slavic mysticism.
In kindergarten, I still rolled my R’s when I spoke English, which gave what was surely an unnerving Soviet quality to my speech. I remember one summer afternoon reading out loud to my baby sister. My parents sat in front of us with a camcorder, a clumsy dinosaur from the early 90′s. The popularity of America’s Funniest Home Videos and the promise of western modernity had swayed my tech-obsessed Dad to buy one. And there he was, recording me reading a story about a boy named Don and his dog. I rolled every R I came across, and if I remember correctly, halfway through I started reading the story with harder, more Germanic R’s. I hope we still have that video — though I’d be too embarrassed to watch it today.
There was another time — perhaps also that summer — I sat in the front of my parents’ gold Mazda with my Dad in the driver’s seat. Our family, keeping up with the modernization of the 90′s, had bought a bright orange Club lock for the car, which now sat in the back seat as my dad drove. Up in the front seat, my father was teaching me how to lisp. It was “thank you,” not “fank you.” It was “three,” not “free.” Not “tree.” Three. “You put your tongue between your teeth, see how?” my father explained. “Thaaaank you.” Ten minutes and some spitting on the dashboard later, I left my Polish-spoken mouth kilometers behind us as we kept driving away.
Almost twenty years later, with the exception of my distinctly Canadian “sorry”, my speech is American and region-less. Occasionally, I get comments from strangers to the effect of “you’re from… somewhere, aren’t you?” and I’ll just look at them blankly until they realise what a senseless question that is. I have gone my whole adult life successfully repressing the memories of kindergarten, where I could barely pronounced the kids’ names let alone successfully ask someone to pass me the Legos. My childhood lacked the sense of community that surrounded Hot Wheels and Pogs during the early 90′s, and I was pretty glad to put it behind me.
That is, until the past year, when I moved to Madrid after graduating from university. I had learned Spanish two years ago, studying abroad in a small town in the north. Naively, I pretty much expected to be footloose and giddy, letting my hair toss in the breeze behind as I cavorted around the Iberian peninsula exploring the food, the culture, the museums, and the men.
Like I said, I expected all of this naively. Very naively. A week in, I got frustrated and lonely, starved for Spanish conversation and company. But in a big city, nobody notices that you’re young and blonde and care-free. Madrid is every bit as friendly as New York — it’s on you to communicate yourself to the world. And that was something I was entirely unprepared for.
Overnight, I found myself extremely self-conscious. I tried so hard to fit in to my new surroundings, and constantly felt a failure at doing so. My most notable failure was my accent. I wasn’t quite fluent in Spanish yet my Polish and American accents came up like bile. Instead of being proud of myself for learning hundreds of new words on a weekly basis, I felt only a distinct “otherness” separating me from a culture I desperately wanted to take part in. It was like being transported back in time to kindergarten.
The plasticity of the human brain is amazing. How incredible that I could will myself to unlearn, to forget, certain difficult or embarrassing moments of my life — only to have them come flooding back. Learning English had been hard enough on me as a five-year-old, but a year ago it was infinitely harder. Every word I spoke outed me as an “other” — and that’s an unpleasant surprise when you’re an adult, when you think you have a pretty good general sense of self.
The timidness that resulted from my foreign accent was overnight; getting over my self-consciousness has been a longer process. Moving into a flat where Spanish was the common language helped; I found an apartment of nine people: Spaniards, Italians, French… my accent didn’t matter as much, but the environment still forced me to rely on my Spanish. I had to go out of my comfort zone a little bit everyday.
But what I really needed was an attitude adjustment. For several months, my American friends had been telling me to get over myself. They were right, but I have a tendency to live in my head and couldn’t listen. Over the past few months, I’ve passed through countless, visiting friends and family. I’m very fortunate to have the chance to catch-up and share stories. During these months, I noticed what should have been obvious: your surroundings are apt to change, but you will always remain you. To be ashamed of that robs you of the only constant you will ever have in your life.
In some aspects, I’ve certainly gotten better at blending in to this city’s culture. In others, I will always stand out. But I enjoy being a vessel of memories and adventures. I am the only one who owns them, and hopefully my accent isn’t too grating for anyone willing to listen. I’m a long way away from contentment, but at least I’ve made a few steps past square one.
Written by Veronica Glab