Accent and Assimilation

I like to poke fun at my friend Christian. Though he is Guatemalan, when I see him in Buenos Aires he speaks like a native Porteño. A few months later, in Santiago, and his accent changes completely to the affectionate chirpiness of Chilean Spanish. I have heard his slight southern drawl as he speaks fluent English in Miami and his Chilango-style upspeak here in Mexico City. I poke fun at Christian because I recognize his habit as my own. From Argentina to Venezuela to Colombia to Mexico my vocabulary and accent are always in flux. Plata becomes lana and diario becomes periódico. The emphasis of syllables moves up and down across words and phrases.

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So much of who we are – or at least how we are perceived – is based on how we speak. A few slight sounds escaping from our mouth can betray our class, birthplace, generation, urban tribe, career, and hidden aspirations. From our infancy we learn to speak by observing the speech of others; and that process never really stops. I know several aspiring radio journalists who spent months trying to sound like – but not sound like – Ira Glass. We are creatures of imitation and assimilation.

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My entire childhood I moved around frequently – sometimes every year. With each new state, neighborhood, schoolyard I had to assimilate to a new vocabulary and enunciation. In Southern California, a Midwestern accent was a junior high death sentence.

Finally it became clear that Southern California would be home. I subconsciously invested all my linguistic faculty in mastering Southern California speech; the dude’s and right on’s and the ‘no worries, it’s cool bro.’ I knew the language, I felt part of the community.

Later, in college, there was a divorce between the language we used at the beach and that of the classroom. The same guys who spoke of ‘chasing tail’ and ‘cold chilling’ became lost in a magical trance of post-modernism and deconstructionism and who knows how many other isms.

One vocabulary sought acceptance and assimilation; the other, an authoritativeness over issues we still failed to grasp completely. At some point I realized that I was tired of both types of imitation. I wanted to speak my own speech, rooted in my own identity. A style of speech liberated from geography, but also from the presumptuous neologisms of the ivory tower. Around the same time I began to travel more and spend ever less time in the United States. At some point I developed my own way of speaking, in which I feel equally at ease in South Africa, India, Kenya, England or the United States. People frequently ask me where I am from. “But you don’t sound American,” they say. Even in my own country, I am told that there is something about my accent that they just can’t place.

I am comfortable with the way I speak English, the way I express myself, the way I am understood. What is interpreted as an American accent is often measured in tone, volume, and swagger. I take pride if those characteristics don’t apply to my own style of speaking. In fact, if true, it probably comes from years of effort and practice.

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But Spanish is different. On my best of days I can convince a South American that I am from Mexico or a Mexican that I am from South America, but I can never seem to simply speak Spanish as me. For example, take one of the most important phrases in any language: “that’s great!” In Latin America the translation changes wildly across countries, regions, and generations. Que padre, que chido, que chévere, que bacano, que chula, and the list goes on. Though I have resorted to “que bien” or “que bueno”, there is really no all-encompassing term that works across the region. Of course another option would be to simply stop speaking so lazily. We tend to say “that’s great” most often when we are hardly listening at all. It is a way to stay on autopilot. But to respond at a deeper level requires more thought, more cognitive energy – and that is a resource that seems to be in increasingly short order.

Thinking about these issues, I came to realize that accent and identity must be a constant struggle for all immigrants. To truly master another language requires much more than imitation and assimilation. We must reach into a dictionary of tens of thousands of words and through our phrasings we must somehow find ourselves.

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