Míša (3)

I’ve lived in three countries: the Czech Republic, the UK, and Denmark. I’m a native speaker of Czech and a non-native speaker of some of the languages relevant for the UK and the Danish contexts. I have experienced more negative comments on my attempts to speak Danish than I have on my attempts to speak English or Welsh, irrespective of how far I’ve been on my trajectory to acquire a higher proficiency in the language in question.  The Welsh context has been the most tolerant: most Welsh speakers I’ve encountered have been incredibly supportive of me using Welsh, no matter how many mistakes I produced.

In England, it happened to me once that a non-native speaker of English started correcting my pronunciation in a way I didn’t find appropriate. It was a student attending my class on general phonetics & phonology. “How can I know what dialect I speak?” – “Well, there are various ways to find out. You might start with the literature,” — here I got interrupted. “What?” “You can consult the literature, see what features are typical of the speech of the area where you grew up.” – “What should I consult?” – “The literature.” – “Say it again?” – “The literature?” – “You mean LI-TRI-ture!” Yes, he was focusing on the fact that I pronounced the word “literature” as “lit” – “ra” – “ture” rather than “li” – “tri” – “ture”, which affected how I pronounced the “r”.

I’ve experienced similar reactions more frequently in Denmark when speaking Danish, but on a more extreme level. On three occasions I can remember, Danes refused to continue communicating with me once they realised I’m not a native speaker of Danish. How did this happen? I simply asked them, in Danish: “Could you say that again?” or “Could you say that again a bit more slowly?” Reactions? Head shaking. No words in any language ensued. On one occasion, the speaker didn’t say anything at all, turned away from me and walked away. In another of the three cases, I decided to push the Danish speaker a little bit (everything I said was in Danish): “You can’t say it again?” More vigorous head shaking. “So you can’t say what you’ve just said again, a little bit more slowly?” More head shaking. “Well, have a good Christmas.” He didn’t reply. And I wish I could say I didn’t really care.

I’v also experienced one case of a Danish student correcting my pronunciation of his name, repeatedly for two years (so far). I consulted Danish phoneticians, one of whom had the same name as the student in question. It is indeed the case that I don’t pronounce the name as native speakers would, but it seems that my mispronunciation is not as distant from the native pronunciation as the student has been insisting it is – at least based on the opinions of a couple of native Danish speakers who also happen to be phoneticians focusing on Danish pronunciation in their research. I can understand that one wants one’s name being pronounced correctly, but it’s only happened to me with native Danish speakers that they would make a repeated point about my mispronunciation of a genuine attempt to pronounce their name correctly. I haven’t experienced this with native speakers of Chinese, Dutch, English, Farsi, French, German, Japanese, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Welsh, and possible others.

In Wales, I was once trying to have a friendly conversation with someone on the train. “So what did you think of X?” (We attended the same event, X, the week before we bumped into each other on the train.) The Welsh speaker started correcting my Welsh grammar. I rephrased what I’d just asked with the construction he insisted I should use. After I produced another sentence, he started commenting on my lexicon. This kept on repeating itself, until I gave up trying to have any conversation with him. After the incident, I asked a couple of native speakers of Welsh if the constructions I had originally used were incorrect and why (I had seen them in textbooks.). It turned out that they didn’t find them incorrect. In fact, they found some of the corrections rather bizarre. I couldn’t help wondering if that Welsh speaker would have corrected these constructions if he heard them from native speakers of Welsh.

And as we can see, all the cases I’ve described above have happened with men. I myself am not a man.

Lily

I’m a French academic who has recently relocated to Belfast. Visiting friends in England recently, I was joking about starting to have a Northern Irish accent, especially when I say Belfast. The Englishman opposite me said “this has to be avoided at all cost”.

Joe

I’m a PhD candidate and associate lecturer, originally from Wolverhampton.

I never really developed a thick Black Country accent. Whenever I speak to people at conferences and I tell them where I’m from, there’s always a somewhat congratulatory “oh, you can’t tell!” reaction.

Peablair

Academia is not the natural home of working-class Belfastians, and certainly not in England. I’m sure I lost out on lectureships because I refused to anglicize my voice. I’ve been sniggered at by students, told I’m Irish, asked when I moved to the UK from Ireland, had it assumed that I’m stupid because we’re treated by many GBers as if we’re worthless trash, treated with apprehension because the person only associated my accent with the rendered violence they saw on the news, had it assumed I’m a lush because they think I’m Irish and that the Irish are mad drunks, been asked which ‘side’ I’m on (i.e. Protestant or Catholic), and am never done having to repeat myself because Geordies can’t seem to understand me even though I enunciate clearly and speak slowly for them without them doing the same for me.

Bryanna

I’m from Long Island NY, from a family with a pretty light accent to begin with, or so I thought. When I went away to college (the first one in my immediate family) to upstate NY the first thing that I knew had to go was my accent. Every time I said anything with my natural lilt my roommates were laughing and demanding I repeat certain words for their entertainment because it was just so funny. I was majoring in Linguistics and when we learned phonetics in the introduction class I used that understanding to change how I spoke. The making fun stopped and no one could tell where I was from anymore; I had to lose a piece of my identity to be accepted by my peers here and more broadly in academia as I’m now working on my PhD.

Anastasia

I was presenting my research at a conference in Cambridge University a few years back. It was a great success and at the end of the questions section my supervisor – A British bully with major stammering issues- told me to ‘stop talking because my accent annoyed him’….

Dave

Before presenting my research at a conference the chair of the session (and head of the organisation running the conference) introduced me but instead of introducing my position or the title of my paper thought it more relevant to tell everyone that “Dave is from Scotland, so he is going to try to speak very slowly and clearly for us all so that we can understand him, isn’t he?”.  I responded that I could deliver my paper in Scots if they would like to which they replied “yes you like to think you have your own language don’t you?”

I think a few of the audience were also quite shocked at this but the majority thought it was quite funny. I always find it surprising that this would happen at an applied linguistics/sociolinguistics conference! Stuff like this happens to me frequently at conferences and it consistently strikes me as odd that linguists (mostly old, white and English…) assume that I’m not aware of my own speech or think I’m incapable of speaking in a way in which people can understand me.