“You’re an American, and everybody knows it…”
“When I first met you, I thought that you were Dutch/Norwegian/German…”
For the past year and a half, I have had to live with two versions of myself: the one who was unmistakably American, and the one who most Americans (and many others besides) thought was a foreigner (and who were surprised to find out that I was born in the U.S and lived there for twenty years).
Being a native English speaker certainly has its advantages—the fact that, just by virtue of me writing in this language, more people are likely to read what I have to say (even in the world of Google Translate). It has enabled others to treat me with respect and to turn to me whenever they need editing, help, or even a slight suggestion for what word to use.
There are other times when I am so unspeakably frustrated with having been born an Anglophone that I would trade it for literally any other native language on earth. If I were born a Scandinavian, I figured, then I could be seen as having excellent English skills and know a host of other languages perfectly, as opposed to the American identity, conflated with an idea of refusing to speak anything but English:
“It’s a well-known fact that Americans are bad with Languages…”
“But you speak German so well! Where did you learn it?”
“Jared speaks very good Yiddish” (Me, thinking to myself: “No, I don’t…”)
Because of this prominent idea that Americans are monoglots, I sometimes feel self-conscious when making any single mistake.
German grammar scrambled?
Hebrew verb mix-up?
Lapsed into Danish during the Swedish conversation hour?
“Ah well, I’m an American, after all…no one really expects me to be good at these…”
And then there are the pangs of insufficiency whenever I tried to speak in the local language and get answered in English. A few months after my most recent vacation (Naples, in February 2014), I noticed that there is a simple way around this: using complicated sentence structure and sentences that are clearly not phrasebook material.
But before I realized that, getting answered in English, wherever it was (outside of Anglophone countries, that is), made my heart sink. “Why did I have the terrible misfortune of being born into a nation imagined for being naïve, stupid and unworldly?”, I figured.
Especially when speaking languages associated with people who speak very good English (my next post will be on the value of learning the Scandinavian Languages!), I realized that I had to cleverly disguise my accent somehow.
I asked my friends from some other countries (especially Spain and Italy) what they do for accent reduction. The answer I most commonly hear: I don’t do anything. Why? “Because people like my accent”, I hear.
And there are so many times I have heard that American-accented anything sounds awful.
But interestingly, there is an advantage to having the accent: for one, American English does have a wealth of phonetic sounds in ways that many other languages do not. The various influences of American English enable me to see how many languages contributed to its development.
Last, but not least, the surprise factor from people when I hear “that’s very unusual for an American to be able to speak like that” is always enough to make me smile.
Just like any identity allotted in life, my American accent sometimes hurts, and sometimes it can be a source of comfort.
And one thing I’ve learned about staying in Germany especially is the fact that Americans are very much not the only people who go abroad and never bother to learn the local language to any degree. People of all nationalities tend to do this.
It is high time that we also stop trying to pretend that Americans can’t learn about the world, much less its many languages, when all such an endeavor takes is wise use of time, commitment, and media exposure.
I look forward to the day when my case of American polyglottery becomes the rule rather than the exception.