Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Huh? What was that?

Ever talk to someone and wonder if they know how they sound? Do you hear your own accent? Does a Texan know he sounds like a Texan? You know the girls sound different from the guys, I don't know why, but they do. I have the opportunity to talk on the telephone to people from every corner of the country and it is funny how some have the quintessential regional accent, and then there are others who seem to have worked very hard to shed the accent, and yet it is still trickling out. Then there are the transplants who have their original accent but "tainted" by their new location.

A lot has been made about Madonna and her British accent, which she shouldn't have since she is from Detroit. What most people will never understand is that as a woman, a singer and a musician she was destined to pick up the British accent. It was completely unavoidable unless she refused to interact with the British people that she was living around. Why do I say this? Well, it has to do with my own experience, it seems to be a natural mechanism of women to adapt to their surroundings and part of that adaption is to absorb the local accent. I'm sure that there is an anthropological reason such as the need to find a mate or some such, and it makes sense. By blending in with the local population it makes the task of fitting in and finding a mate much easier. There are those accents that may never be lost such as the Bronx, or the real deep southern drawl. And sometimes a national accent such as German or Russian may be very hard to shake, but if the ear is good then it is very likely that the accent will be pretty near indiscernible after some practice. A great example of this is The model Heidi Klum, I was recently listening to her give an interview, and although she learned English later in her life, she has nearly no accent to her English. Most people would not be able to hear even the slightest lilt to her English, but to those of us with a good ear can still pick it out.

Musicians and Singers are great at picking up an accent and blending in to a new area. I always wondered why I had the ability to pick up an accent, and then while talking to some other friends of mine who happened to be musicians they made the point that having an ear for music makes it easier to hear lots of other things. Consider that half of the British singers sound American when they sing, it's because they were influenced by so many of the old blues masters who were American. From New Orleans, to Memphis to Chicago the Blues brought American music to the world and the influence gave so many singers an American accent, at least when they sang.

Since I have been studying languages I have found that if I can listen to a native speaker, I can blend right in with the rest of the natives, at least when I speak! I try very hard to learn as much as I can from Native speakers of what ever language I am studying, when I was learning Spanish I listened to Colombians, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans, when I wanted to study French I listened to the French Exchange student in my school, when I study Russian I listen to the Ukrainians that I know, because that's the accent that I want when I speak Russian. I will worry about Ukrainian later.

One thing I have learned while studying languages is that the more you learn, the easier it gets, and the more you want to learn. I agree with the idea that if you are going to live in America you should be able to speak English. I don't think that one need to be fluent the second they set foot on the ground, but at least make the effort to learn and understand. My belief also is the reason that I study languages, because I also believe that if I wish to visit someplace in the world I should be able to speak that language. Maybe not fluently, but at least enough to be able to go grocery shopping and to get around the city without getting myself in a pickle. They say that Americans are often treated rudely in foreign countries, but I think it is not because they are American, but because most Americans don't make any effort to learn about where they are going. When Americans encounter foreigners who have no English skills, all too often they treat them with the same rudeness. It only takes a little effort to learn a few key phrases in a different language, and just the fact that you are trying makes all the difference. When I was in Ukraine, and looking for a store, I asked for directions, first in my terrible Russian, and then the person I was asking realized that I spoke English and they wanted to practice English! So we made a little team for a few hours, I would practice my Russian, and they would practice their English. It was a great exchange and later I found that as long as I tried the Russian first, I got smiles and all the help I could ever need when I needed it. Sometimes I would resort to sign language, but more times than not whomever I was talking to would know enough English to understand my Russian and I was happy to be understood.

Learn a language. It's fun and you may find out that you need to learn better English. It's amazing how many English words come from Other languages and how much we already know from our own mongrel mess of a language. I once read that a child is born with the capacity to understand and emulate as many as 500 different sounds, and as they develop their language skills they lose those that they have no use for. A child will learn what it hears. Let them listen to the Foreign TV stations , rather than plonking them in front of the cartoons that you understand. Expose them to as many languages as you can. it's good for them, and you may be surprised at how much and how fast they learn.

I wish I had that chance when I was a child.

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