What's in an accent? I'd never really thought about it much until recent years. But I guess if you ask me now, I'd say a lot.
Growing up in a place where basically everyone I knew was born in Australia and spoke English at home, my friends and I never thought of ourselves as having accents. Of course, everyone has an accent, it's just you base your idea of what constitutes an accent on sounds that are foreign to you. We didn't encounter so many “accents” in our everyday lives, bar what we saw in movies and on TV or heard on the audio tapes that we'd listen to for language tests. Accents were an indicator of foreignness and that wasn't an inherently negative thing. Just ask the Irish guy who spent a semester abroad at our high school. His “dreamy accent” had half the girls in the school in a tizzy about how to get him to say anything to them, even though they'd proudly exclaim that they didn't understand a word that came out of his mouth.
While I may not have been chasing Kian, I've always been fascinated with the idea of people and lands far away. Accents did seem rather “exotic” (all be they quite stereotypically at the time) and they just made me more eager to start my travel dream and explore this wide world of ours. Of course, once I started to travel myself, I did get the opportunity to spend time with people from all over the world, hearing how they speak the sounds of their own language(s) as well as foreign ones. I loved being immersed in a foreign culture, like I was in a huge language puzzle and I was left to decipher it. Soon I was the one with the “accent” and I didn't mind it in the slightest. On the first trip Hai and I took together (our six and a half month backpacking jaunt around the world), many people would often pick that we were Australian right away. We would also try to guess where our dorm room mates were from based on their accents too. I found it so interesting that the way we speak can instantly categorise ourselves. Of course, there can be downsides to that too when it comes to negative stereotypes, but on the whole it seemed like Australians were quite positively regarded internationally as fun and friendly folk. Apparently our accents are quite hilarious and should always be mimicked with a line from Crocodile Dundee. “That's not a knife. That's a knife.”
It wasn't until we moved to Japan that my accent started to “change”. It was probably a few months into my first teaching job that people started to mistake me for American. It was mostly new students and non-American sub teachers who would make the assumption. All of the American teachers I worked with would laugh it off and say, “She doesn't sound American AT ALL.” When you're from a particular place, you know the sounds of local accents intimately and can quite easily pick up on even the smallest of differences. It's just like I can tell the difference between an Australian and New Zealand accent, while I can't easily differentiate between someone from the States and someone from Canada. Of course where you're from is one of the first things you are going to talk about when meeting a student for the first time and if you're a Japanese person who hasn't travelled much or had much exposure to English speakers, it can be very difficult to pick accents or changes in lexical choices. When you're at the beginning stages of learning any language, it all tends to sound “the same”. I still can't tell if someone is from Kanto or Kansai (regions of Japan) based on the way they speak, whereas Japanese people say the difference is like night and day. I think I'll measure my success in obtaining fluency in the Japanese language once I can do that!
It was probably a year or so later that many people started noting the American “twang” in my voice. I think this has a lot to do with the education system in Japan. While some of the higher level language tests do have more of a focus on understanding English as a “world” language now and therefore deliberately include speakers from various countries in their listening tests, I was mostly teaching very young students. During these younger years, most of the Japanese English-language resources are American. I guess if you're hearing the same kinds of sounds often enough, you subconsciously start picking up on them too.
On top of that, I was making conscious choices to say things in a certain way to my younger students. They would hear words in songs and on the CD that accompanied their workbook in American English. I couldn't expect a group of three-year-olds to understand that when the CD says ‘bath' and I say ‘bah-th' we are referring to the same thing, the place where you wash or the action of washing one's self. To them, that was a completely different word. To avoid confusion, I would mimic the sounds on the CD. I would also consciously change my lexical choices in class too for the same reason. The kids had learned that the place they put their waste is the ‘trash can'. If I started calling it the ‘rubbish bin' then there would be all kinds of confusion and clean-up time would have taken five times as long.
With my older students though, who had more of a grasp on the English language, I wouldn't always make these changes because I think it's important that they get the opportunity to hear a wide variety of accents and to understand the regional differences in how English is spoken. I'd never ask them to change the way they had learned it to match my Australian English, I'd just explain my use of a particular word by saying that, “In Australia, a trash can is called a …” and continue on with what I was saying in my regular way of speaking. At that level, students found these observations to be both relevant and interesting.
Around the workplace, I also started selectively referring to things by their American counterpart to my North American colleagues. It's not like we couldn't understand each other perfectly well but we would often come across certain terms that weren't familiar. As native English speakers, we could easily clarify and ask what they meant and if I used a word my colleagues didn't understand, I would just say that's what we call X in Australia. But I did find myself starting to refer to things around the office the same way my American colleagues did. It's not like any of the other teachers ever made fun of my Australianisms or asked me to speak in a certain way, in fact we had lots of wonderful conversations during break times about language differences, it's just it was sometimes easier that way. It was often easier to communicate with many of my Japanese colleagues too who had grown up using the same American-based textbooks. And even though we learned a lot from each other by hearing these “mysterious” terms, you also don't want to be the person who is constantly going on about about how “In Australia, we…” If I understood what they were saying, there was no need to “correct” them or make a point about it. Neither way is more “correct” than the other in any case, they are just different. On the whole, I also think I understood more American vocabulary than my American colleagues knew of Australian or British English. The Australian TV and film industry isn't huge so we see a lot of shows and movies imported from the US. Thanks to this, Australians have the opportunity to learn a lot of American vocabulary through entertainment. It seems that in many parts of the world Crocodile Dundee is still Australia's biggest claim to fame.
While my conscious language choices had been to assist my students and work life, once you start saying things in a certain way often enough, it does start to creep into your general speech. I remember the first time I subconsciously said ‘trash can' at home. Hai spun around on his chair instantly and teasingly said, “So we are speaking American English at home now too, are we?” Now I use the terms interchangeably without a second thought. Of course, using American vocabulary doesn't necessarily mean you say it with an American accent, but as I only heard those words from American English speakers, I guess I was somehow modelling their speech and the more such vocabulary entered my lexicon, the more I instantly “sounded” North American.
Later on, I also started teaching jobs where accent, lexical and even spelling choices were discussed from the get-go. “Please use American English when speaking with the students and use American spelling for all written work, including class and student reports.” Coming from Australia, most people Down Under are well aware that we use British English spellings. I'm pretty sure we learned about it at some point in school but the differences are even more pronounced since the advent of the Internet where a search on any given topic is sure to bring up a huge amount of resources using American English. We have no issues in reading it because we are aware it's just the way things are spelled elsewhere in the world. However, I have sometimes had American teachers tell me I have made a spelling mistake on my student reports (at jobs where it was not a requirement to use one type of spelling or the other). This may or may not be generally the case, but quite a number of my American colleagues didn't seem to be aware of many of these alternate spellings. Things like color vs colour, organization vs organisation, center vs centre. No, I didn't make a mistake. That's British English!
Even though more and more Americanisms had started making their way into my everyday language, when it came to written communication, I was making a conscious choice to write one way or the other. For me it's not like in spoken English, how a certain word comes out sounding a different way or a particular word slips out just from frequency of using it. The way I spell is still to this day a very conscious decision for me. I don't “accidentally” write in American English. If I do, it is a choice. This is something that I often battle as an Australian writer. Which spelling should I use?
The last time we came back to Australia two years ago was the real eye opener for me in how much my spoken English had changed. People suddenly started asking which country I was from and at my sister's wedding, all of the guests I didn't know asked who the American was. Was I a friend of the family who came over for the occasion or an immigrant? How was it that I was part of the wedding party? Even family members asked about this “American accent” I seemed to have acquired. Sure, I had made some clear choices when I was at work in Japan so I could be understood or to follow the policy at my work place, but I spoke in my “regular” way everywhere else. Sometimes certain “American” words would come out naturally, but I hadn't tried to change the sounds of my everyday speech, like my vowel sounds, for example. I only did so in certain situations in which I felt it was beneficial for the person or people I was speaking to. In fact, still to this day I use long vowel sound in words like ‘bah-th' instead of the American ‘bath' but people often think I sound American, even Australians.
I think I made my full transformation into this American language identity during our recent travels. Despite the fact that from mid-2013 to the end of 2014, we were not in Japan and had stopped teaching, my accent didn't revert back to my old Australian ways. Perhaps my American English became even stronger as now it wasn't a small “twang” only noticed by non-Americans, it was now the American travellers, the ones who had once laughed that I could ever be considered from that geographical region, who were totally convinced I grew up in North America.
We are now back in Australia for a few weeks and I'm finding myself in this strange kind of head space. I mean, this is my home country, it's comfortable to me, I understand how things work here, but there is also this inherent sense of “outsiderness” I feel. Apparently I sound different to the people around me. When I've asked for something at a shop, I've had to repeat myself more than a few times for the shop assistant to understand and they do this thing where they lean in, tilt their head to the side a little and kind of squint their eyes as if they have to listen really intently to comprehend what this foreign girl is saying. It's kind of weird to me because, in my head, I sound exactly the way I always have. I'm not putting on any kind of accent, I'm speaking “normally”.
It's not like other Australians aren't nice to me as this perceived “outsider” but you do feel different, like you're not one of them. Day in and day out it's, “Where are you from?” Some people try to drop the question in casually in conversation, like the doctor who says, “I'm just making sure all your records are complete here, can you remind me where you were born again?” “Bendigo, ” I respond. A town that is only two hours from the clinic I was visiting. She turns from her computer to look square at me with a look of shock, “Oh, really? So your accent is just from all the travelling you do? I was sitting here tossing up between the States and Canada!”
Back in the waiting room after I've just gotten up-to-date with my travel vaccinations, I'm told to wait for 15 minutes as a matter of protocol just to ensure I don't have a reaction. A guy who was still waiting for his appointment came over and struck up a conversation. After a few minutes, he says, “You know, you have a real American accent. I wouldn't have known you were from around here if you didn't tell me.”
Then you head over to the bank to get a new ATM card issued and the teller asks, “Are you a Permanent Resident of Australia?” in a very long and slow drawl, just in case I couldn't understand her. Or you go to any other office where you're informed that you can only do X, Y or Z if you're an Australian citizen. I am!
It's not like people mean any offense by it, but it's kind of tiring having to almost “defend” your “Australianness” at every turn. As someone not based in their home country, it's a strange situation to be in. In Japan, I am always a foreigner. It doesn't matter how much time I spend there, how much I understand about the culture or how fluent my Japanese gets, I am clearly not Japanese. I will never be truly Japanese. Now it's as if I'm not considered truly Australian either. Through all our travels, I've learned to feel at home wherever we are in the world. I love the challenge of having to navigate a completely different society and way of life. But what happens when none of these societies accept you as a true local anymore?
From reading this, you're probably thinking I must be very anti-American. I assure you this isn't the case! There is absolutely nothing wrong with being American or having an American accent. I'm just documenting my language journey and how my accent has evolved into something different than the predominant sounds of the country I was born and grew up in. In fact, it's not all bad standing out from the crowd in this way. Like the guy at the doctor's office who actually went on to say, “Well, I think your accent is really cool” or the fact that you have this intangible souvenir from your travels following you wherever you go. I actually like the fact that my accent is a living and evolving reminder of the places I have been and that it will change and adapt with the places I will continue to go in the future.
Of course, I couldn't do a piece like this and not have you hear what I sound like in reality. If you've never watched any of our YouTube videos, here's what I sound like as of right now, along with a rather embarrassing clip from our first ever video we made nine years ago!