Thursday, January 21, 2010

Foreign accents as the new must-have accessory

As is inevitable when everyone around you is reflecting back on the decade, I've been doing a little myself. I started in 2000 when I was 16 and have gotten stuck there, my mind refusing to budge forward from that sweet, sweet time. Still a fairly new transplant to Canada, I found that turning on my Kiwi accent was an excellent way to garner attention, particularly from the male sex. Neither of my two accents had availed themselves to me so favourably before but when I was 16, I used my adopted "foreign" accent to charm a handsome member of the football team and a university student who should have known better.

I don't recall whether it was ever a conscious decision, but from my first day at primary school in New Zealand, my five year-old self was acutely aware that I was not speaking the same language as the bare-footed children running around me. I don't personally remember the bare-footed part but have adopted this memory as my own after hearing my mom (mum if you will) recollect the mild horror she experienced seeing all the primary school children running around bare-foot in winter. We weren't in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The first time I had to consciously turn on my Kiwi accent was on Canadian soil, where I knew if I didn't concentrate, I would effortlessly slip into my generic North American one. Growing up it was a different story, at school I went native Kiwi and at home I used the same accent as my parents and it was only when they pointed out that they couldn't recognize my voice at a public-speaking event at school, did I become fully aware of my accent schizophrenia. I still don't know where I'm from.

For all the years spent unconsciously polishing my accent like the good silver, it didn't take long to give it up when I was no longer around people who don't pronounce "r" at the end of words. I dabbled in my Kiwi accent during the first year in Canada, but gave it up for good shortly after my sixteenth birthday. I don't know if that's what charmed the university student six years my senior and home on winter break, if I was just sooo cute with my quaint little accent from the South Pacific, but I never went out with him more than once. Either way, with the exception of probably very few, you must question the third-year college student who is interested in a 16 year-old high schooler.

It was easier to drop the accent, which had become a vestigial appendage in my new high school with lockers, no uniforms and lunches off school premises ("like in the movies" my girlfriends in NZ would say). I met my high school sweetheart and there was no need for a trendy foreign accent, we were so tangled up in each other.

I don't know if I would use ironic to describe my current situation, but speaking almost exclusively to my partner in a language not my own is certainly something. Fill in the blank. I do my best to not speak Japanese with a North American accent, but I highly doubt the beau finds my "foreign" accent sexy. There is nothing sexy about me speaking Japanese, for tell me, what does sexy in Japanese look like for members of the fairer sex? High pitched squeals? Certain Japanese men are damn sexy when they talk (have I mentioned my penchant for rolled r's??), but what about when they are speaking English? English spoken with an Asian accent is generally not romanticized by us in the West (it is the stuff of badly played stereotypes). Think about references to sexy foreign accents in film, books and conversations. The Europeans, British, Kiwis and Aussies have a monopoly on it!

Can you picture your friend saying, "his sexy Japanese accent made me swoon"? Her broken English may be cute, but do you think it's sexy? (Don't answer if you are turned on by the phrase "me love you long time".) In becoming accustomed to speaking another language, it is so easy to forget that you very well may have a foreign accent, dashing or not. While the beau's English is charmingly brokedown, I don't think of him as him on the rare occasion he attempts English; he becomes another person, with a new tone of voice and the dynamic of our relationship experiences a power switch as I become the language authority. This took me a while to figure out and in making this discovery, realized that while I can hold a conversation with him in Japanese, I'm the one speaking a second language, I'm the one making grammatical errors and sometimes butchering words. How can the beau stand this? I will be sure to ask him one day soon, for I don't know how tolerant I would be if the situation was reversed and it was the beau with the foreign accent. I'd like to think I would be patient and kind, but if I am honest with myself, I quite possibly wouldn't get involved with someone who loses part of their humor, intelligence and sexiness by simply speaking a language not their own.

While I have gained another foreign accent in recent years, it is with more trepidation that I consider it, for I will never be able to truly gauge just how much of me is being lost by living in Japanese with the beau, a compartment of my life where it is arguably the most important to be yourself. I am confident that most of me translates, if not through words then through non-verbal means, but I worry that I lose my funny quips in Japanese and my maturity, and that the beau will never be able to know the part that doesn't translate. On bad days, it feels quite tragic.


Sarah said...

I feel the same way sometimes...

Especially since a Japanese ex-something once told me that he was a different person in English than in Japanese - and then would never speak Japanese with me...

Anonymous said...

Yes, I have been totally wowed once, by a Japanese speaking my native language. The way he pronounced "coffee" was just sooo sexy! It made me pursue a date with him and wished we'd spend the night with him whispering into my ears (sadly, it never happened).
But I understand how other accents can be unsexy and I'm also quite self conscious of my own.

Anonymous said...

i visited mongolia the summer of 2008 and met some cute Mongolian guys and i gotta say their english accents are cute.

Sana said...

Very interesting post!

Actually I'd love to ask my Japanese boyfriend the very same question but I'm a bit scared that once he starts thinking about it (if he hasn't already) he might become more impatient with me making mistakes all the time.

On the other hand, he recently told me about a girl he met. She hardly speaks any Japanese even though she lives in Japan and he said that it made him realize how good my Japanese actually is. This made me happy but I know that I must sound like a complete fool sometimes when I try to explain something and just can't find the words I need. It's so frustrating. I still haven't lost hope though that I'll be fluent someday.

kathrynoh said...

Japanese accents are sexy. I have a real thing about the way Japanese guys say thank you in English.

I've wondered about the language thing in relationships. I'm assuming you were pretty fluent in Japanese when you met the beau but it must be really weird in relationships where someone becomes increasingly fluent in the other language. There would have to be a huge shift in the dynamics of the relationship.

Anonymous said...

My DH and I have been married 7 years, in the beginning his grammar and pronunciation mistakes drove me nuts but now I don't notice them very often. I think you just get used to them.
I feel that I am another person in Japanese and it gets me down too. Sometimes I just want to pack up and go home to be myself.

j. said...

well said.

there are definitely things that don't translate across the language barrier and the "On bad days, it feels quite tragic." yes yes and yes!

while the boy can speak english, it frustrates me that my conversational japanese is better than his conversational english (he beats me every time in random vocab though) because it means i'm constantly at a disadvantage. but i guess i should give him *some* credit for putting up with my japanese, huh?

Gaijin Wife said...

Gotta love the kiwi accent aye? My parent's think I have a more 'international' accent the last ten years I have been here. I am definately a different person in NZ and in Japan. I personally don't think I am but boyfriends/husband think I am.

God, imagine if hub could understand my blog. Would so be divorced by now :)

aimlesswanderer said...

I have always wondered what would happen if a kiwi was to teach English to Japanese kids, especially when it came to 'sux servings of fush and chups'.

Jen B said...

I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about losing humour, etc from one language to the next; it's true for me when I speak French or English, and I have no foreign accent in either, it is quite literally a personality change that occurs and has nothing to do with grammar or usage.

In French I'm loving, vocal when discontent (usually drunk), laugh at very low-brow jokes; in English, I talk too much, fly off the handle rarely, complicate matters by over-thinking, am more sociable, the list goes on...
I am quite literally two people.

That sounds a bit psychotic. I'm quite harmless :-)

But... funnily enough, the times when I've gone a bit punk on someone in French, my monsieur has suggested that I try English next time, or a strong foreign accent and all will be forgiven, failing to understand that I am quite enjoying the controversy :-D

selena said...

Hi Green,

Great post. This was so well written.

I used to think I couldn't date someone who didn't speak the same language at a native level. I thought that language was too important to me, and losing nuance would kill me.

Then I found out that it was eminently possible to have a relationship with someone who speaks the same language and yet never manage to communicate or understand what the other person is trying to say.

And that with the right person, the meaning comes across regardless of which words you choose, which language you use.

I still miss nuance and sarcasm and bemoan the fact that I sound like an idiot half the time (or, more than half - but I'm referring to the part of the time when I'm not using the native tongue. I'll take full responsibility for sounding like an idiot in my own language). But I have come to realize that communication has a lot to do with intention, too.

Anyway, this post was food for thought. Thanks!

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Sarah: Interesting about the ex, I guess he didn't want you to know the "Japanese him"? Could he have been that different I wonder...

aneki: Your native language is not English right? I was just imagining someone saying "coohii" in a sexy voice :)

Sana: I think you have to trust that if it was such a problem, he wouldn't have gotten into it with you in the first place. On the flip side, I would guess that the monolingual partner in this kind of relationship probably feels grateful to a certain degree that their non-native partner is making the effort to use their language.

kathrynoh: Really? That totally make me smile because "sankyu" drives me nuts. I could get by when I met the beau but was in school for the first year so I have improved quite a bit since we first met - I am pretty good at fighting in Japanese now and don't need to look stuff up in the dictionary before I yell (^ ^)

Anon 1:26 PM: I can see how you would get used to it, much as you would become accustomed to normal speech patterns or habits of anyone you are around a lot. It's nice to know others feel the same way, but I hope the days you want to leave are fewer than those you don't.

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

j: Thank you for commenting! Do you feel at a disadvantage because you are speaking his language? The power play that comes into this language issue is really interesting. As I said above, instead of thinking he is putting up with your skills, look at it like you are doing him a favour by speaking his language :)

Gaijin Wife: You DO gotta love the Kiwi accent, I've been known to get a bit silly around some NZ rugby players at uni here. The accent/hard body combo is dangerous! The beau rarely asks what I write, but the language barrier does keep our blogs safe from prying eyes doesn't it!! :) If only we could know what they would write if they wrote about us...

aimless: I've had friends here from NZ teaching, and they were always told to "Americanize" their accents.

Jen B: I'm sure it's quite harmless! For a true bilingual it must feel a bit crazy in your head sometimes, no? Love your monsieur's suggestion of selectively choosing your language, but I'm thinking the thirst for controversy transcends both the French and English you!!

Selena: Thanks for the thoughtful comments. "...with the right person, the meaning comes across regardless of which words you choose, which language you use." Too right. I desperately wish the beau could understand me in English, but I also have to remind myself that we are still communicating in a very real way.

Anonymous said...

I never got good enough at Japanese to have a relationship in Japan where we spoke exclusively in Japanese. But that definitely happened to me while I was living in Germany.

I dated a guy in Germany and never realized how much our relationship revolved around the "Teacher / student" sort of dynamic until he came to visit me in the US and our roles were reversed. All of a sudden I was the one expeted to play translator / cultural embassador and I hated it.

Plus, I always suspected that he didn't know me very well. The real me, anyway. Because in German, I was always less self-confident and less intelligent and less "mature". I think that's a very good word to use to descibe it.

PS I still enjoy catching up with your blog from time to time...You really are an excellent writer. Have you ever considered writing a book?

: ) Reannon

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Reannon: Hey! I still enjoy catching up with your blog too and seeing where your jet-setting adventures take you :) Your fears basically sum up all of mine, I HATE thinking I could be a different person in Japanese.

As for a b--k (see, I can't even write it out), it has been in the recesses of my mind but I honestly wouldn't even know where to start!

wakanai said...

I believe that in order to be able to speak a language fluently, you must also think and act as such a person. Speaking Japanese goes much better if you copycat their mimics, gestures and behavior. If you bow when you're talking on the phone, the Hai rolls out naturally :) It all comes together.
So speaking in Japanese (or any other language) is (for me) actually switching over to 'Nihon' mode inside my head. I become a little bit Japanese, or French, or German. Sake helps enormously in this. Real spooky, isn't it?

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

wakanai- You do have to get into character somewhat. It's hard reconciling that when I don't agree with how my Japanese self is acting.