What do you mean by “Foreign Accent”?

I just find this so funny.

So Where You From?

Why must a foreign accent always invite an inquisition?

  • By Iva R. Skoch
  • Smithsonian magazine, September 2010

“If you’re an immigrant with an accent, as I am, your days will be filled with conversations with nice people.”

I’m going to be that immigrant with the funny accent. If our plans push through, I’ll be joining my very American soon-to-be husband in less than a year and he warned me in advance that my accent can both be a blessing and a curse as I might encounter people who are hostile to immigrants. I don’t speak or write perfect English (no, I’m not that bigheaded) but I think I speak and write English well enough (yes, I am that bigheaded). I told him that we all have accents – it’s just a matter of where you are at the moment. His Southern New Jersey accent certainly sounded foreign and strange to me the first time we talked. And he found Londoners’ accent even stranger than mine when we went on a holiday last March.

Even here in Saudi Arabia where I work, I get a lot of similar questions related to how I speak and how I look. While I believe I look as Filipina as any Filipina could be, my country’s varied ancestry can make it difficult for some to make sure at first glance.

“Are you Chinese/Japanese/Indonesian/Malaysian?”
“Why do you speak English so well?”
“Where did you grow up?”

My real nationality seems to surprise most people. I’m not offended and I don’t take it as rasicm when people seem to lump all Southeast Asians together. If they’ve never been there, we can’t expect them to know the difference, right? It’s also a little-known fact that Filipinos are taught to speak English from early childhood as it’s our schools’ medium of instruction. The accents may vary from region to region but most Filipinos have a good grasp of the language. It surprises my inquisitors even more when I say that I grew up here in Saudi Arabia. My English sounds nothing like the local accent but is more like a mix of Ateneo-English plus everything I picked up from all places I’ve been since my teenage years. And in spite of mostly staying here in SA for the past 18 years, I cannot speak decent Arabic – a fact that embarrasses me every time I’m forced to admit it.


6 thoughts on “What do you mean by “Foreign Accent”?

  1. Iva Skoch sounds like a sourpuss in her Smithsonian article!
    Every person who comes to our area seem to be delighted when asked where they come from. And usually a nice discussion of travel and family ensues.
    If I am traveling out of my country, I am flattered when asked where I come from and where I am headed. Its a nice way to open a topic and to have a learning experience. I think of how once traveling in Central America, we were winging it, and wanted to know places of interest, we found a young woman who sat with us for hours and mapped out a great itinerary for us.
    So I would think she needs to look at this from a happy standpoint, and not feel that its offensive or intrusive, its all in her interpretation.
    Be happy, enjoy life!

    • Hi Mary,

      While I found Iva to be more “introverted” than I would be if our situations were reversed, I understood how she must have felt. You have had great experiences from being open and friendly with people, and (I’m just guessing here) friendliness even to strangers is ingrained in your culture. Perhaps, for Iva Skoch, the opposite is true.

      Several times, she mentioned the “anonymity of Europe”. Though I have never been to the Czech Republic, I’m guessing through her statement that she grew up in a place where people don’t normally start chatting with others when they hear a strange accent. It’s all about culture, really: what you were raised to do, what you’re used to doing.

      The Philippines is known to be a hospitable country, though in Metro Manila where the city is just bursting with people, we’ve learned to leave each other alone most of the time. That attitude combined with my conservative upbringing in Saudi Arabia makes people initially think that I am quiet and unfriendly. But it’s only because I’m not used to starting conversations with folks I don’t know.

      Iva will probably learn to loosen up in time. So will I as soon as there’s a change of environment. 🙂

      Thanks for dropping by! 🙂

  2. Gracious, Iva is a cranky sort. I think in being a country where everyone is or was, through ancestors, an immigrant at one time or another, the majority of Americans are just fascinated and thrilled to see the tradition of the melting pot continue. I’ve had Iva’s exact experience on too many occasions to count just due to my looks–people are always asking about my ethnic background and having been born and raised in the U.S. I certainly don’t have an unfamiliar accent! Personally I have always felt such questions to be a wonderful exercise in what is a very American curiosity and appreciation of all things/people “foreign.”

    Prior to traveling abroad I was warned by professors that an accent was unacceptable when speaking a foreign tongue which I found to be true as everyone from shopkeepers to waitresses corrected my slightest mispronunciation. I much prefer the American attitude that what to others is “mispronunciation” is instead an exotic and oftentimes beautiful accent. But I rant…

    • Speaking of “mispronunciation”, it’s true that we all have funny ways of saying certain words. Chris and I once had an argument about my saying the word /assume/. He pronounced it the correct (dictionary) way. I said it as ah-SHOOM. While I do know how to say it as per dictionary rules, I frequently lapse into the way most peeps from my country say the word. He learned by this time not to comment on my accent too much but he still smiles when I say it, hehehe.

  3. I can use two neighbours as examples here, A Russian family has moved in to a house nearby. They are just wonderful people, and we love to talk. Their housekeeper is teaching me some Russian words, and they love our dog. Our daughter spent some time working in Russia, and arranged afterwards for 2 students to spend summers here.
    And there are 2 young Czech students up the street staying here for the summer, and they are delightful to talk with, and my little grandson admires them.
    So just from our experience with exchange student programs and meeting people from other countries here at home, is wonderful and lots of fun.
    Our own kids have participaged in college exchange programs, and its a superb opportunity.
    I must not get too off topic here, but our family sure has benefited by meeting people from other countries and vise versa.

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