On passing for a native speaker
I came to realize how many thoughts I have around my English accent. It’s a mix of pride and anxiety, and this is discomfort I’m not going to get away from anytime soon.
Why is this important?
Okay, so you’re bragging, right? You want to show off and tell everyone how good your accent is. That you’re passing for a native speaker and it is about your ego.
I keep struggling with that idea, because, yes, part of it is pride in my skill level and effort I put into learning it. Part if it is lack of comfort, and awareness of my privilege.
I have small interactions around my accent daily. They are usually positive for me and well-meaning from others. I enjoy them, but they leave me with a sense of uneasiness every so often. And digging into that uneasiness seems worth the effort.
Working as a software engineer
English is the lingua franca of software engineering, as is it in many other fields. I need it for my day to day work. I needed it even when I was living in Poland. All my code is in English. All my comments are in English. Most of my writing is in English because of the value of sharing ideas and the high cost of translating it. Translating is like rewriting your thoughts in a different voice that somehow needs to still feel like you.
To keep up to date with technology, grow our skills and work as engineers, we need English.
Perception of certain vernaculars
It is my understanding that on average people perceive certain vernaculars of English as more-than. There are many dimensions to it: more sophisticated, more fluent, more appropriate. When I was learning English, the vernacular was a somewhat posh Oxbridge version of British English. My grammar, my vocabulary, and my perception of the right accent come from my impressions of learning the language in Poland.
Certain vernaculars are undesirable - one of them is Eastern European. To speak with an Eastern European accent is to bring about all our heritage into the room. Suddenly, there is a faint whiff of vodka and a meaty sound of rolling Rs. The consonants are hard and thick, the vowels are sparse and flat. The possible topics of conversation shift to hardship, folklore, and drinking.
To speak with an Eastern European accent is to label oneself as the other. That other is often perceived as less-than.
Living in an English speaking country
I look like I could be from anywhere in Europe with my generic European face. My accent and vocuabulary put me somewhere close to Northern and Western Europe. My job puts me firmly in the category of professionals.
When someone asks where I’m from, they bring about curiousness. They expect to hear about a land full of happy blond people speaking a fast-paced Germanic language. They have expectations around good social security systems and an outstanding education.
But what do you mean Polish? Surely, you’re second generation? Or you moved somewhere as a child? Maybe you had special training and loads of effort put into this? Maybe you’re Polish in an American, second-generation your-grandma-was-Polish way?
Oh, but you don’t sound Polish! How can it be? I’d never think that! Your English is so good! Where did you learn the accent? Did you study abroad? Have you been in Canada long?
They’re impressed, they’re amazed, they’re speechless. They grab bits and pieces from their patchy pattern of Eastern European cultures. So, you drink a lot of vodka? And pierogi, yes, I love pierogi!
Why can’t people just learn an accent?
Say, how many languages do you speak, with how many different accents?
Did you learn them at home or at school?
How many opportunities do you have to practice your second, third, fourth language, on a day-to-day basis?
How much time do you have to learn anything, with all this stuff going on in your life?
What’s an accent? How do you make those sounds you make when you speak your language?
Why does it bother me so much?
Because learning a language is different than many other ways of being the other. It is not something you were born with. It is something you can change up to a point. It is not something you can just learn, you need to find your way into it.
But it’s not perceived as such by an average native English speaker I interact with. They usually assume it’s about effort. If you don’t have the right accent, you didn’t work hard enough. You should take an English class and work on it.
I can pass for a native speaker. I can experience the same level of comfort in English as I do in Polish. My skill level, my abilities, myself - they’re not judged based on my accent. And that’s comfort that many people don’t have.
It’s hard to watch movies where accents are being used as a shorthand. Person A has this accent, therefore person A has these characteristics. This is how you should perceive person A. If person A is Eastern European, they’re probably a blue-collar worker who drinks too much. Or an unhappy homo sovieticus struggling with the post-communist reality. Or a beautiful woman who was saved from being Eastern European by marrying a rich Westerner.
It’s hard to see people shift their language and behaviour ever so slightly when they hear a hint of otherness. They assume things, they adjust things, they adapt to what they expect an interaction to be like.
It’s hard not to say the obvious things. If I have an accent, that means I learned a second language. You have no idea how my thoughts sound. I have to translate them for you and translation makes me speak with somebody else’s voice.
I am not one of you. I am the other.
I am not the other. I am one of you.