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Accents and Isolation

I ended up in a really interesting conversation yesterday with a coworker, and just had to share.

See, this particular woman is Barbadian, and has a fairly strong accent to my ear. Her husband is from the southern US, and she said that every time she would go visit his family, people would say to her husband (ahem, not even to her), "I can't understand her!"

Well. This did not make my colleague very happy — as she put it, English is her only language, and she has lived in the US about twice as long as she lived in Barbados. Her response? "Kiss my a**." (Just get the image in your head of a 68-year-old woman saying that… I love it.)

Well, as she was saying, people always understood THAT.

I had to sympathize — my mother, who is English and has also lived in the US longer than she lived in England, still gets people remarking on her accent, as if she doesn't know she has one. And one thing my coworker and my mother agree on — if they have an accent, you do too. So they'd prefer you just be quiet.

And that was never more apparent to me than last year, living in London. London is funny — such an international city, full of immigrants, that having a foreign accent shouldn't be an issue… except for that nagging nationalism that the English* don't always admit to having. And it got isolating, tiring — to the point that when I was buying Christmas presents in the city last year, I tossed on a fake accent in shops so that people would stop asking me if I were a tourist.

Is all of this the worst thing in the world? No, of course not. But something that my coworker, my mother, and I have all found out the hard way is that no matter how well you know a country and its people, your voice will always affect your ability to communicate. And that's not even counting language barriers — we are all native English-speakers, in English-speaking countries. As long as there are these basic communication barriers in people's minds, then you can never really feel at home in your new country; you're always "other." And of course, if you live abroad long enough, it can be impossible for your native country to feel like home anymore, either.

What are your experiences with having/hearing a foreign accent? Do you think it is offensive or otherwise impolite to remark on someone's accent? Do accents have the power to isolate people in societies? I want to hear your thoughts!

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I'm Julia Hudson, a.k.a. The Epic Adventurer, and I write all about independent, sustainable, and culturally-sensitive travel. I'm a professional travel writer, editor, and digital marketer based out of Boston. I love inspiring people to travel and promoting economically and environmentally responsible tourism. Besides the nitty-gritty of travel how-tos, I think a lot about the ways that traveling shapes our sense of identity. Being foreign is always an eye-opening experience, and we carry complex responsibilities and freedoms as we move around our planet.

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