Post #12: The Accent Dilemma

Happy Thursday Everyone!

Today’s topic: speaking languages with a foreign accent.

OK, so hear me out. My boyfriend is Guatemalan, and his family speaks Spanish predominately.

When we first started dating, family get-togethers were a bit of a nightmare for me. Not only was I trying to fit in and impress everyone as the new girlfriend, but I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying. At my lowest point, I was convinced everyone was talking badly about me and every outburst of laughter was directed at me.

In the eight years that we’ve been together, however, I’ve learned more than my fair share of Spanish, and now his mother and I communicate in an odd but perfectly efficient way: she talks to me in Spanish and I answer in English. It works, at least most of the time. Over the years there have been a few misunderstandings, of course.

Now, I bet you’re wondering, why don’t I just speak Spanish? Well, I’ll tell you why. Put simply, here is the issue: the accent.

I have this unrelenting belief that has prevented me from speaking Spanish outloud in front of anyone. I believe that no matter how solid my comprehension of the language is, until I have perfected the accent, I am going to sound … well, stupid.

Exhibit A:

and Exhibit B:

Do you see my point?

The double standard here? Well, this only works for English speakers. If English is not your first language, you can definitely get away with speaking it with your normal foreign accent. It hardly ever sounds bad at all!

Case in point: Penelope Cruz butchering the English language = sexy. White people stuttering over their Spanish = super not sexy.

Exhibit A:

and Exhibit B:

and Exhibit C:

and Exhibit D:

The only time I can get my accent to sound “right,” is when I’m totally comfortable, i.e., by myself or inebriated. Otherwise, I’m a stuttering, stumbling idiot.

My boyfriend’s family say that they don’t care how my accent sounds, it just matters that I try. But I’ve seen the truth: when they watch movies where a character talks in Spanish and it’s evident that he is not a native Spanish speaker, they pounce all over it. “Why do they do that?” my boyfriend will demand. “Couldn’t they get someone who actually speaks the language? There sure as hell is enough of us here.”

One time an American actor played a reoccurring role on a novella – his Spanish was pretty flawless, but every now and then his accent would slip and he would sound totally, totally American. My boyfriend’s mother would laugh and shake her head. “Pobrecito,” she’d murmur, pitying him.

The first time I spoke Spanish in front of one of my boyfriend’s family members (I gave a hearty “Mucho gusto!” to group of incoming guests at a family party) I got laughed at. Seriously. Amused by either my enthusiasm or my pronunciation, my boyfriend’s cousin couldn’t hide his laughter. “What?” I demanded, feeling my face turn hot and red, especially since he couldn’t answer because he was laughing so hard. “You know, at least I try!” I said defensively.

He stopped laughing. “No, it was cute! You were very excited and serious at the same time,” he stood ramrod straight and extended his hand stiffly. “Mucho gusto!” He sounded so ridiculous it was impossible not to laugh.

I attempted to hide my embarrassment with anger. “You know, it’s people like you that give me issues when it comes to speaking Spanish. Now I’m never going to speak in front of you again because I’ll always be afraid that you’re going to laugh at me!”

He laughed again – not a good sign- and then gave me a slap on the back. “Look, your accent is fine. Your pronunciation is fine. Everything is fine. Just relax!”

Ha! Easier said than done.

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