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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Losing My Accent

Learning a second language is one of the most difficult things I've ever done. It's frustrating and humiliating, and the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. Sometimes, you just want to give up. But we put forth the effort in order that we might be able to share our lives with the people of the places we've moved to. If only recognizing the importance of language learning was enough to, you know, speak it.

I used to like the television show "Alias." The main character, Syndey Bristow, was the best secret-agent ever. She was sort of a cross between James Bond and Lara Croft. I watched faithfully through the first season. I was half-way through season two when someone asked me what the show was about. "Well, there's this college-student-by-day, undercover-super-agent-by-night whose dad is a double agent but she doesn't know it and whose mom was a double agent for the KGB but her dad didn't know it, and her dad's best friend is the villain posing as a good guy, until they introduce her long-lost sister." I was overcome with how ridiculous it sounded as I spoke. After that, I never watched the show again.

The worst thing about the show wasn't the spy family, triple-agent, gadget-for-everything, plot, it was the fact that no matter what obscure country Sydney found herself in, she spoke the local language perfectly. Chinese. Tagalog. Welsh. She spoke them so well that not even the local bad guys could tell she was a foreigner. Stealth-ninja swordplay skills I'll buy, but fluency in fifty languages is just too unrealistic for me.

Which brings me to I asked a friend who is a church planter in the UK about this a few weeks ago. Maybe he'll post his response in a comment, but really can't get past this. We've got people on the field who speak the national language very well. They've been around a while, they can do everything they need to do and say anything they might need to say in the language. But they have accents. Strong ones. They butcher the language with the typical American "R's" and lazy vowels. In the phone, no one mistakes them for nationals. In person, the listener still has to contort his face as he strains to understand. So my question is this: Do our personnel working in English-speaking contexts take on the local accent?

For me, the accent is the key to true cultural relevance. Think of it this way, if I were to speak with a guy in London, he'd surely notice my American accent. But after a couple years of living in Covent Garden, I'd surely be able to put on a pretty good English accent for my friend. Not that I'd be able to pass for a Brit, but I bet he wouldn't say, "Hey, you're putting on an English accent." No. I'm pretty sure he'd say something like, "Hey, you're losing your American accent."

I'm sure there are probably all sorts of ministry applications to the idea of losing our accents. To me, it just reminds me that there is more than just a language barrier between me and the people to whom I minister. It makes me want to live in such a way that the people around me start to say: "Hey, the longer you're here, the less your faith seems foreign to me."


Local foreigner said...

Amazing how the locals can peg you in an instant, too. My wife went out to meet the chimmney sweep, and said one word: "Hallo" (spoken in her best dialect, she's actually got a pretty good mimicry of the local dialect going). All the other locals greet each other with "Hallo" (or Soli, or sometimes a quick 'Tag).

The sweep stopped in his tracks and said ... haltingly ... in English "my English is not so good".

Pfingston is tomorrow - Pentacost - we're praying for a similar event to take place in our town!

Brittany said...

It's a perplexing problem because I've found that some cultures actually get offended if you try to immitate their accent. In Uganda, the nationals speak English with a lovely lilting, sing-song cadence to their words. Yet when an American attempts to do the same, the nationals feel as though you are disparaging their English and are in essence saying, "You can't understand 'normal' English well enough for me to speak with my normal accent, so I'm going to try to speak like you so you can understand me."

Anonymous said...

Hey, Stepchild. I just found your blog today while searching for another one that I forgot to bookmark. My comments will be all over the place since I've just been reviewing the whole blog, or at least the parts that grabbed my attention. I'm putting the comment here because I will eventually get around to mentioning accents. Maybe.

Let's start with this. Buck up, buddy. I liked you right away. You are winsome. Kind of. Likeable. Loveable even.

I'm posting anonymously. My writing can be completely open because my identity isn't. And that's what I love about your blog. You don't reveal your name, but you do reveal your soul. A good tradeoff.

And about that soul: how refreshing to meet someone who can take his ministry completely seriously without having to take himself seriously.

Of course, the down side of openness is the inevitable wallowing in the insecurities that we all share and most of us don't want to read about. I think about 95% of your wrestling with modernism could be solved if you left Europe for this part of Africa. Here, modernism is neither a worldview nor a reality, it's just an aspiration and a rumor about how other people live.

Speaking of accents, when I started my language learning I wanted to practice excellent diction, enunciation, accent--the whole package. As long as one is learning to talk all over again, why not do it right this time? But it didn't work out. People looked at me funny. The whole point of not having and accent is so that people will NOT look at you funny. I have been told, and have come to believe, that what people want is not that we sound like them. They want all that nonverbal stuff that leaks out and tells them the truth about how we really feel about them--they want that stuff to show that they are honored and enjoyed. If we get that right, people will give us a hearing.

That's my theory, anyway.

Rede Vida Mais Café said...

Fastastic! "Hey, the longer you're here, the less your faith seems foreign to me." It reminds me of our gathering yesterday with all of our summer friends. Of course, there are those that are instantly drawn to us. There are those that believe the first time they hear. It seems that most of the people I have encoutered are more like ice cubes. (not in temperature) We started our meeting with a bowl of ice in the middle. By the end of our meeting the ice was melted. I couldn't tell you at what point it all happened. It was just a gradual thing that took place over time.
I must say that many of your thoughts remind me of the kind of heartbeat found in Donald Miller's stuff. Especially in the younger generations there is this desire to simply have someone step out and be REAL. The "likeable factor" is important. However, I think more than anything we want ot see people that are genuine--real--transparent. It would seem that after a while we are going to have a group of people that, like Miller, are not afraid to expose the soul. I wonder---then what? Do you think that eventually we are going to desire to have that call to excellence? What does excellence look like when dealing with this accent thing? What does it look like when living in a culture so that they may hear? Is there such a thing as doing what we do well--or better than well?
Love what you do---keep up the great work!

TheMDude said...

I remember years ago meeting an SB missionary who had served in Italy since 1937 (gone during the war years and back). This was the early 80s and I was doing a workshop with a Conservative Baptist brother. Anyway, this SBC guy had the thickest southern accent in english I had every heard and I asked him how this accent translated into his spoken Italian. His offended response was of course not - he spoke accentless Italian! So I asked my CB friend and he laughed. Apparently the Italian brethern could imitate this accent perfectly to each other and were quite amused - only the SBC M didn't know!

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