Getting Back to Language Mismatches

Previous chronicles here. As a reminder to those joining us late, the point is not that there is anything wrong, or even logically unexpected, about someone from Norway speaking English with a Brooklyn accent, or a Chinese girl whose English sounds as if she's from London's East End. Indeed this is almost a logical inevitability, given (a) the spread of English as the whole world's second language, and (b) the many strong variations in English styles and accents. But the result is still interesting, given (c) the powerful emotional marking that inevitably accompanies those accents. Would, say, Tony Blair have sounded less "eloquent" if his English were right out of Fargo? Would, say, recent immigrants from Mexico get a different reception from police and storekeepers if they sounded like Tony Blair? I think the answer is Yes on both counts. 

With that throat-clearing, here we go with a few more reports.

I am an English teacher in Taipei. I have a fairly thick Southern drawl and so there are classes of Taiwanese children who all sound like they're from North Central Texas. it's great! ...

10_walken_lgl.jpgThe strangest accent mismatch I have ever heard (other than the fairly common American-Born- Taiwanese-kids-who-grew-up-in-Houston,Texas accent) was definitely here in the ROC. I was sitting in a small bar in central Taipei, drinking with some friends, when I randomly started talking to the Taiwanese guy to our right. We started in Chinese but as bilingual conversations do, it drifted into English. About ten words into his sentence, I couldn't figure out who this guy sounded like. Then at about twenty words, I realized My god! I'm talking to Christopher Walken. For whatever strange reason, this guy sounded exactly like Christopher Walken. I was so astounded I picked up his tab. Turns out he had lived in NYC for a few years and although he didn't intend to, Mandarin and New York English had combined in his mouth to form Christopher Walken...

[Also] I tended bar in an Irish pub in New Orleans before Katrina. There was a young guy who used to work construction who would come into the bar frequently after work. This fella was tall and dark, but not Irish tall and dark. He was Indonesian but had grown up in Galway. And when he spoke, his accent was a thick West Coast Irish accent - four or more drinks into the day and he was damn near unintelligible. Any more West Coast Irish and he would have been speaking Irish. Which, having grown up in the Gaeltacht, he could!

This reader also recommends a wonderful video about language mismatch in general and speaking Irish in particular, called Yu Ming is ainm dom. Maybe it's just because of the time I spent in China, but I thought this was genuinely moving. And funny.

Two more after the jump.

A reader writes:

I grew up (partly) in Tokyo and environs, and while my command of Japanese is slim, I have a decent ear for accent (making it painful to listen to most Americans attempt Japanese).

I was wandering around the shops at Narita, coming home from a business trip, a few years ago, and the guy ahead of me at the counter was a real Rastaman in appearance--outfit, dreads, the works--with his little daughter in tow. When he reached the counter, out of his mouth flowed, to my ear, entirely accentless Japanese.

Sadly, I never heard him speaking any other language.

A reader in San Francisco whose family is from Mexico writes:

It happens even closer to home. Many people in California either assume everyone is fresh off the ranch or they are just very eager to practice their Spanish. I was getting my vaccine boosts for a trip to Africa when the nurse practitioner greeted me and proceeded to address me in Spanish (not bad, but also not great). I said in Spanish, "while I appreciate the gesture, I would prefer to speak your native language when my health is involved" (didn't mean to be snarky, but after it came out I realized it was!). Then I changed to my flawless Midwestern American English accent that I worked so hard on in Keokuk, Iowa!

A small corollary to this story...When people say that I don't have an accent when I speak English I always correct them and say I do. It's a Midwestern American accent. Many are puzzled when I say that, since of course they don't have accents.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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