I was in line for food at my university’s cafeteria for brunch with my roommate. There was a black man in front of my roommate and I close to 6 feet tall. He turned around and greeted me asked me how I was doing. Then, as per the appropriate American way to introduce yourself, he asked me where I was from.
Answering this question is always problematic so I asked him, “You mean, like, where I was born?” He said, “Yeah.” I told him that I’m from Nigeria and he asked, “Nigeria? Wow. You speak good English!” I then told him, “Thanks! I started speaking it in Nigeria since the official language in Nigeria is English,” you know, kind of like how it is in America.
Now, of course, I don’t expect Americans to know Nigerian history and the fact that British imperialism is the reason why just about every Nigerian speaks English. But the statement “you speak good English” has always been a weird one to me whenever someone finds out I am not “from” America.
When someone tells me I speak good English, what I really hear is “you speak English in an accent that I am familiar with” since my accent is pretty American.
Unlike me, my parents have Nigerian accents so the “where are you from” question tends to happen right off the bat more often with them compared to me. Hardly ever is their English critiqued in front of them like it is for me. There was one time in Canada that my father heard elderly women in a church talk about him and say, “He speaks better English than a number of people I know.” But then, I have had moments where my friends have come up to me telling me that they have a hard time understanding my father because “his English is not very good.” I’ve never known the appropriate way to respond to those comments but defending him has always been a gut reaction. There’s a difference between “I can’t understand him because of his accent” and “his English is bad,” I’d think to myself. One is a cultural difference. The other deals with syntax and diction issues.
It is a problem if we start viewing the goodness of something and the familiarity of something as the same thing. Your personal experiences are not the only ones that exist just like my personal experiences aren’t the only ones that exist. Someone’s accent is part of their cultural identity and the vast array of accents in the world goes to show how big this planet truly is. It’s also important to remember that our inability to comprehend someone’s English is not always synonymous with their inability to speak English.
One of my favorite ways of explaining this is when I translate for my mom. And by translate, I mean repeat exactly what the other English-speaking person said and say it back to her in English. It seems kind of strange but I found out in my Cultural Anthropology class that because I am a person that has grown up in multiple cultures, I have an accent that non-Western English speakers can typically understand. My accent is a unique mishmash of all the cultures I’ve been immersed in for long periods of time and it has somehow trained me with a tendency to enunciate my words. Because of this, non-Western English speakers tend to understand me without difficulty.
Now, would my mom turn to the majority of those Americans and say that they have bad English? Of course not. They just speak in an accent that she did not grow up with and that’s okay! And I feel the best way to solve our difficulty in understanding one another is for immigrants and non-immigrants to interact with one another on a more frequent basis. I would also advise us to differentiate between good English and a familiarity with one’s accent while we’re at it.
What’s been your experience interacting with people with different accents than you?