There are not many experiences more frustrating than not being understood. Perhaps that feeling can turn into sadness and resignation when your stubborn conspiracy theorist uncle seems unable to comprehend your politics at the family dinner table. Or it can be quite motivating when your professor returns the first draft of your philosophy essay to you, almost entirely highlighted.
But what happens when the barista at your favorite coffee shop makes you a cup of chai instead of a cappuccino for the third time in a month? Or even worse, how do you deal with repeating yourself multiple times on a first date?
“Everybody has an accent,” according to the Linguistic Society of America. And it does make sense. If an accent is one’s manner of pronunciation, every person who speaks any language in the world has an accent. For some reason, however, mine has felt more of an accent than everybody else’s. The difficult to place, nonetheless quite thick Greek accent that I now call mine was not something I was even aware of before coming to the United States. I heard my first “could you please repeat that?” at the immigration desk of Boston Logan International Airport. Many followed.
“I love your accent!” exclaimed the happy dad of my first-year suitemate on the third floor of Welch Hall. I reacted with an awkward smile because I was confused. Of course, I knew I did not speak English like my British friends or the kids from New York, but it had never occurred to me that I had an accent. I did not know how to feel, but all the questions and interactions of that period that had seemed a bit off suddenly made sense.
During my first semester at Yale my accent became the scapegoat for all the social and academic difficulties I had been facing. Confirmation bias magnified my insecurity. With every request made to me to repeat something, I also perceived a disapproval of my expressions on the whole. I started participating less in classes, only speaking in well thought-out sentences that I had internally practiced; social interactions, especially new ones, always came with a degree of anxiety. Ironically, that same anxiety was reinforcing itself, as it was very evidently making my accent stronger.
My very negative feelings about my accent could not be substantiated by the way the people around me handled my manner of speaking. On the contrary, I very much justified them for asking me to repeat things. The sounds of my native language were phonetically distorting the English words I was using. I could totally understand that. Yet, my habit of pinning a perceived negative judgement of every aspect of my speech on my accent persisted.
In a 2015 article in The Economist, journalist Robert Lane Greene described “bad jokes and silly stereotypes” about people with accents, as “the last acceptable form of public prejudice.” I thought back to my childhood struggle with the tasteless jokes of my classmates about the accents of Albanian immigrants. As the son of an ethnically Greek immigrant from Albania, that kind of humor had always annoyed me. But I had never reacted to it the same way I would have reacted to blatantly racist remarks.
Even though accents are a regular part of such discriminatory narratives, as a characteristic that can be easily targeted due to the perceived usefulness of pronouncing things in an “orthodox” manner, they are rarely included in conversations about stigma and microaggressions. We talk about discrimination and stigma on the basis of characteristics such as ethnicity, race and sexuality, but we dismiss something as important as the way one speaks. As a result, prejudices based on accents have existed in a gray zone of political correctness.
In 1998, the year that I was born, Tufts University faculty members Julia Dobrow and Calvin Gidney published a paper on codings of the use of accents in cartoons. Interestingly the results pointed out to the fact that villains and comical, silly characters consistently used non-American accents. I grew up learning English by watching Disney movies and American TV shows. The conflation of such judgements and manner of speaking could very easily have been internalized, contributing to my “crisis of pronunciation” when I first arrived in the United States.
Frankly, without assuming bad intentions on behalf of anybody, I think that it is almost impossible that such a long period of dismissal of the attitude toward foreign accents is disconnected from my experience and feelings. Multiple researchers, such as Agata Gluszek GRD ’10 and Yale psychology and public health professor John Dovidio, have pointed out the fact that foreign accents “activate stereotypes about nonnative speakers in general.” Conceivably these stereotypes about my accent take precedence over what I am actually saying. Being a white man in the United States, the privilege of my perceived identity makes it so that nobody questions my presence here. That is, until I open my mouth. The differences are subtle but present: People speak slower and avoid complex words — patiently, or sometimes impatiently waiting for me to stop talking — rather than listening to what I have to say.
In class I have experienced and witnessed shameless repetitions of ideas initially expressed by people with nonnative accents, to the point that I question whether some of our classmates continue listening after they realize I have an accent. On the flip side, I have experienced professors highly praising my mediocre contributions, holding me to a lower standard than the rest of the class, simply because of my accent. Even though the latter seems like I am receiving preferential treatment, it is equally, if not more, awkward. Everyone, however, may not be treated with as much preference.
“In high school, I remember vividly the frequency in which kids with funny accents were made fun of,” said Zulfiqar Mannan ’20. “This wasn’t about race as much as it was about where you came from, what your access to education was or who your parents were or what your parents were teaching you. Very early on, I learned to associate an English accent with its place in society, in hierarchy. When I came to Yale and someone exclaimed about my accent, I was shocked. My accent had never been identified for me. Suddenly, I realized I felt like all the kids who were made fun of in class all those years ago, the roles were reversed. I still consciously ensure I don’t mix my Vs with my Ws.”
I have now gotten over my discomfort with repeating myself, keeping in mind that people are asking me because they are genuinely interested in listening to what I have to say. For quite some time though, I would apologize, making it clear that I knew the reason I had to repeat myself was my accent. Some recognized it and moved on with the conversation. Others became weirdly defensive, as if I had accused them for offending me. But the most annoying responses came from kind hearts who perceived that as a cue to try make me feel better.
“But I find your accent so cute.”
Such validation of my accent was unwarranted by the indication that the source of our miscommunication was their inability to understand it. Being praised for the beauty, or even worse, exoticness of something like the way you talk, especially when completely out of context, makes you feel quite awkward, almost confirming its status as a weakness. Nobody would say that the color of someone’s skin or their gender are cute. So, why is it normal to say that about someone’s accent? If anything, what such remarks achieve is an actual, or perceived, infantilization and objectification of my manner of speaking, which instead of making me feel better, creates a power dynamic in the conversation.
In today’s world — and particularly in Donald Trump’s America — the worst thing we could do is to stop talking. I need to continue the conversation despite my foreign accent. And maybe you need to try harder because of my foreign accent. Paraphrasing poet Denice Frohman, my accent is a stubborn compass always pointing me toward home. Only, that does not have to mean that this, and you, cannot be my second home.
I am not expecting people who are not used to my pronunciation to always understand me. I will gladly repeat my sentences, and even try to stretch my mouth around the sounds I didn’t grow up with. Unavoidably, this makes me feel like the outsider, but I am willing to get over that frustration and not blame you or myself. I am still learning to love my accent, as you are still getting used to it. In the meantime, I appreciate the value of our interaction way too much to be stopped by any feelings of discomfort or awkwardness.
And I sure as hell prefer cappuccino to chai.
Viktor Dimas | firstname.lastname@example.org .