Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On accents

I was listening to a radio programme today about a BBC project called Voices. In it, they touched on the fact that some of the subjects in the project chose to leave behind their regional accents when they went to university, saying that in order to be perceived as educated, they needed to dissociate themselves from that pattern of speech.

On a previous project, I worked with audio clips from people in what is known as the Black Country. The accents and dialects of this area tend to be treated with scorn, and there was concern as to whether the clips would be suitable because of the accents of the speakers.

During my short stint as a drama teacher, I was faced with a dilemma. It was during the days of apartheid and I was the first white teacher at what was primarily an Indian (as in Asian Indian) dance and drama school. Some of the parents were resentful of my presence. Others would try to wangle it so that their children came to my classes. Then they would take me to one side and ask me to teach their children to speak without an Indian accent and, in so doing, open up a whole vista of new opportunities for them.

Elocution lessons were a thing of the past by then. My own drama school had long since dropped them from the curriculum. While we were taught to adopt other accents for roles which required them, we were not taught to lose our own accents in everyday life. These were considered integral to who we were. I supported this view.

But how (at the age of 19) do you say no to a parent who is paying a fair amount of money to send their child to you for drama lessons? One parent asked me to rid their child of a stutter. This was outside of my remit, but no more so than overriding the culturual influences of a lifetime, albeit a short one. (Side note: while I did not rid him of his stutter in daily life, we found ways for him to lose it on stage... but that is another story)

I have lived int he UK for 10 years. I am still unmistakably South African from the moment I open my mouth. Ron Lubensky has been in Australia twice as long, and yet his accent identifies him as Canadian... to those with a fine enough ear not to mistake it for American.

I love the fact that, during the after-service tea on a Sunday, I can hear a different accent every few paces (although, to be honest all our children sound pretty much the same). It represents such a rich diversity of cultures, perspectives and backgrounds. It saddens me that people feel pressured to lose their accents to get ahead, or to be perceived with greater respect.


Greg said...

This may have happened because Emily Blunt has attributed acting classes as 'curing' her stuttering, etc. Speaking in accents does temporarily reduce stuttering behaviors, but it's no cure. And for what it's worth, it's widely known that acting has a tendency to reduce stuttering while on stage. It's yet another frustratingly unknown aspect of the phenomenon. And unfortunately, it leads people to assume that it's some kind of psychological/anxiety weakness or character flaw...when there is a whole host of evidence revealing that it's a legitimate medical condition.

The upsycho said...

@Greg Thanks for the comment. You display an insight into this that would imply you either work with stutterers or have a stutter of your own. So thanks for sharing.

Since stutterers are able to sing without stuttering at all, I would infer that a different brain process is involved. I would also suggest that learnt lines have something in common with singing in that it is not material that must be generated by the centres of the brain associated with speech.

Since you have homed in on this topic, let me share what I did did with my stuttering student. I become utterly dictatorial about the pitch and tone of each syllable he spoke on stage. Something I probably wouldn't have dreamed of doing with any of the other kids, because that takes away the interpretative aspect of acting. However, I reasoned that it would cause his brain to act on the lines as they would if he were singing them. It worked to a huge extent... but only on stage. I just hoped that he could somehow learn to apply the same process of his own volition elsewhere in his communications.

We also focused a lot on breathing, since breathing is another key aspect of singing. This helped, too, and had some effect off-stage.

What I did notice in his case (and I speak only for this one case, without meaning to impute the same characteristics to any other stutterer) was that his stutter was far worse in the presence of adults. With other kids it was so slight as to be negligble - especially with kids he knew.

When the class did improvs, I encouraged him to immerse himself in the situation so completely as to forget that I was there. Normally, a drama teacher teaches students always to retain an awareness of the audience because your real communication is with them. In his case, this was unhelpful.

This also had marked results in that his group improvs were virtually stutter-free and even his individual improvs benefitted. For his exam, the clever monkey did an improv about a kid with a stutter and impressed the socks off the examiner with his realistic portrayal!

rlubensky said...

Hi Karyn,

Thanks for thinking of me!

It continues to surprise and annoy me after 22 years Down Under that many people want to make my Canadian accent the topic of conversation. Invariably, I am reminded "you haven't lost your accent", implying that perhaps I should have. I have spoken to Poms, Kiwis and South Africans who get the same thing. But I don't think Indians, Vietnamese or Greeks, for example, are met with the same expectation.

Comments mainly come from people who I doubt have travelled. Frequently in my neighbourhood, the comment comes from young people of south Mediterranean heritage who to my ear carry accents even though they were born in Australia!

I think generally these are people who are insular, who make an issue of difference, who look to classify people by ethnicity. Because I look and behave like an archetypal Anglo-Saxon Australian, my accent is perceived as an anomaly.

Rather than change my accent, I just try to change the subject!

The upsycho said...

@Ron The thing about accents is that people tend to notice that others' differ from their own. So even though some of my vowels have modulated, and I have acquired some of the dialect, there are still enough markers to identify me as foreign. When I go back to South Africa, for the first few days, people say "Sheesh! You sound like a pom." But within days, it's "Wow! You haven't lost your accent at all."

When I watch a movie in which someone adopts a South African accent, it usually gives me the pip, because they have missed key markers. But to a non-South African, they sound perfect. Possibly the sole exception to that has been Val Kilmer in The Saint.

People in the UK can't distinguish between South African, Australian and New Zealand accents. South Africans can't distinguish between Australian and New Zealand. Most of the world can't distinguish between Canadian and American (what's that aboat, eh?). When I had a Hungarian au pair, it was several months before she began to notice that my accent differed from everyone other people's.

One has to have a fine (or trained) ear to pick up the markers. How tired are you of people trying to imitate your accent and producing some dire, garbled nonsense that everyone else promptly declares indistinguishable from your speech patterns?

Duncan said...

Hi Karyn,
Coming from the black country myself I've certainly come across this. I had quite a strong dialect at secondary school, which I've since lost. My accent still identifies me as coming from the Midlands, but I do speak something approaching normal English now.

On the education side, I think there is a prejudice that equates accent with intelligence. When I was in the forces about twenty years ago and met someone new, there were some who would categorise the combination of brummie accent and being a soldier as meaning you had the IQ of a slug. Like all prejudices, it's wrong and counterproductive, but it does exist.

I can tell Canadian and American accents apart most of the time, but probably not Australian and New Zealand. The differences are quite subtle, which is why it's so difficult to get a good accent when learning a new language.

The upsycho said...

@Duncan I'm glad you haven't let the prejudices hold you back.

One key thing to listen out for in the Aussie/NZ thing is the way they pronounce words like kids, kitchen, six and fish. Kiwis flatten the vowel completely to sound like the neutral 'e' in 'the' so that they almost "kuhss the kuhdz uhn the kuhtchuhn"

V Yonkers said...

I live a few hours from the Canadian/NY border. What is interesting is that I confuse people from the Midwest of Canada (Western Ontario, Manitoba) with those from the Upper Midwest US (Minnisota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Upper Pennisula of Michigan). However, in my own community, I can tell someone who comes from the east side of the Hudson from someone that comes from the west side of the Hudson.

I have been told by my British friends that they have trouble distinguishing between East Coast Americans and the Irish. Is this true? (I don't see the similarities at all!)

The upsycho said...

@Virginia It's not a similarity I've ever noticed. But I understand what you're saying about your own community. While an English person might not be able to tell a South African from a Kiwi, I can usually tell which part of South Africa the person comes from and what language they speak at home (South Africa has 11 official languages!)