Accent Wars

I’ve been watching some Australian TV online lately. When I first started, normal Australian accents sounded foreign to me. It was overwhelming, almost jarring, to have so much of it thrown at me all at once. I was really surprised by that! I kept watching and after half an hour or so I got comfortable. I enjoyed all the Australian vocabulary that now sticks out as unusual and, of course, “mate” thrown in everywhere.

This got me thinking about my sometimes tumultuous relationship with my accent. Changes in my accent and vocabulary have been a big part of my expat experience. I lived almost all of the first 14 years of my life in Australia. Strangely enough, this resulted in my speaking English with a distinctly Australian accent. Ah, if only it were that simple. Most of my time overseas (12 years altogether), the majority of native English speakers around me have had strong American accents. This has greatly affected my own accent.

America produces and exports SO MUCH media that the rest of the English-speaking world is frequently exposed to America accents. Americans, however, are largely unexposed to other dialects of English. No problem there – why would you import media when you have so much domestic product? The result, however, is that while they may think other accents sound nice, they are totally thrown by the different vocabulary. I can usually pick Americans who aren’t long out of their native land – they positively bubble about how much they love my accent and how they could listen to me all day. Sometimes it makes me feel like novelty entertainment (which is irritating) but most of the time I can receive the compliment as it’s intended.

When I lived in the US as a teenager (in Greenwich, Connecticut) I was pretty stubborn about keeping my accent, my vocabulary, and my spelling – even if it meant I was marked down in English class! My first few years in China I had a similar attitude toward my Australian linguistic identity. It didn’t last. I may live in China, but in the English-speaking expat world of Beijing, Americans are everywhere. In particular, only a small percentage of the expat youth leaders I’ve worked with here were not American, and most of those were Canadian (a similar accent, at least compared to mine).

There’s only so many times you can stop and explain yourself EVERY. OTHER. SENTENCE. Every week, for years. After a while it just wasn’t worth having the same conversations with every American about the different words I used. I started to switch out my Australian vocabulary for American equivalents. It simplified my life. I could continue a conversation without being derailed mid-thought as word choices distracted my American friends. Honestly, this really annoyed me at first. Why did I have to change my speech patterns simply because my friends were unaware of the rest of the world? That may be an unkind thought, but it was how I felt. I resented always having to be the one who adjusted. I’ve had a flashback to all this in the past week. I’ve used more Australian vocab than normal (I suppose from having watched some Aussie TV) and it reminds me why I usually don’t bother – even Americans I’ve known for years (and who probably know very well what the word meant) will stop me mid-sentence to point out the “strange” word. My options? Either I have constant discussions (which feel like arguments and produce ill feeling in me toward others) or I change the way I speak. For my own sanity, I chose the latter.

Fast forward 2-3 years, and things became more confused. After years of self-editing, American words started to become my default. I found myself saying “sweater” rather than “jumper” and “cell phone” rather than “mobile” not by deliberate choice but involuntarily. I even said “elevator” instead of “lift” a few times – which goes totally against the Australian way of abbreviating everything! I took a lot of teasing from Australian friends for this; the word choice was now automatic, it came out no matter who I was talking to. Worse than this, I began to have trouble remembering which word was from which country. I would look at both words in my mind and be unsure which was the Australian word and which the American; by this point both felt familiar and comfortable. It wasn’t long before I stopped recognising my sisters’ voices on the phone. They would say hi and start talking but their accents sounded so foreign to me I would think “who is this??” – until I caught up a few seconds later.

Combined, all of this was terrifying – no exaggeration. I felt, on some level, that my core identity was slipping through my fingers and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. Then it happened. I was talking to an English man at a conference I was helping run; upon discovering I was Australian he expressed surprise, as he had assumed I was American. He apologised immediately, but the damage was done. I was dismayed, and angry – not at him, but at the situation. I was angry at being in this position, at feeling helpless. All that emotion bubbled beneath the surface for two more years.

Then I made a biting comment to a friend about how much I hated the fact that I was losing my accent. It was an uncharacteristically emotional outburst, and he asked a simple but poignant question: “Why does this bother you so much?” As so often happens with this friend’s gentle (and now much appreciated) challenges, I was stopped in my tracks. Why DID it bother me so much? Sure, losing my accent made me feel somehow “less Australian” and it wasn’t fun to have friends or family back home tease me about it. But why did that matter? Why was being (and sounding) Australian such a core part of my identity?

Australian flag hanging outside our American house; performing in the Greenwich High School marching band at a football game.

As I thought about it, I realised a lot of the emotion came from my experience as a teenage expat. For two years living in the US I was known throughout a huge school as “the Australian girl.” I lost count of the number of times people called my accent “cute”. One friend kept an on-going list of all the different vocabulary words I used. She talked about wanting to go to Australia so she could order “a chicken burger with chips and lemonade” (and get a chicken sandwich with fries and a Sprite). None of this is bad, and no one was ever mean to me about it, but it was tiring. My voice identified me and made me public property somehow.

(The photos show an Australian flag hanging outside our American house (I’m on the left), and me in the Greenwich High School marching band – at an American football game, no less.)

My last few months in the US I was sooo excited to go back to Australia, to fit in and no longer be “the foreign girl.” Imagine my surprise when I discovered that to Australian ears I now sounded American. Some people started to call me “Miss America.” It was really disheartening. There were some permanent changes to my accent/vocab even at this point – the incessant use of “like” being a big one. I also drilled myself to say “bathroom” instead of “toilet” while in the US, so I didn’t embarrass or offend, but I had trouble switching back when returned to Australia and was teased for years over it. If I asked where the bathroom was, the tongue-in-cheek reply would often be “Why? Do you want to wash your hands? Or do you mean the toilet?”

As an adult in China, every time I noticed my Australian accent shifting it hit that teenage pain. The accent and vocabulary changes triggered all the angst of both culture shock in America and reverse culture shock in Australia. Back then I was caught in something I couldn’t control; ten years later it was still controlling my reactions.

Sitting in the middle of all this, I sensed God speak clearly to me: “If you choose to live overseas, your accent will continue to change. That is the price of the life you live. Knowing that, do you still want to stay?” When I looked at it from that angle, suddenly everything shifted. Of course I wanted to stay! Losing my accent is a small price to pay compared to everything I gain living overseas, not least the opportunity to work with so many amazing teenagers. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still a PRICE to be PAID. There is an emotional toll that comes with having an accent that doesn’t totally match your passport. But realising it is a choice, and that what I gain is worth the cost, makes all the difference in the world.

My accent and vocabulary have continued to shift away from standard Australian and toward something more American. What has really changed, however, is how I feel about it. It no longer bothers me so deeply. I find it more entertaining than devastating. I don’t stress over which words I use (although I do surprise myself sometimes with my inadvertant choices). I still bristle when I am mocked for using Australian vocabulary, even in jest (being mocked for using American vocabulary is fine – but there shouldn’t be consequences to speaking in my native accent, surely!) BUT I don’t feel ashamed when an Australian can’t pick where I’m from. I may get a little wistful sometimes, but I know that I’ve made a deliberate choice – that I’ve prioritised expat life over a “pure” Aussie accent. Ever since realising that it truly is a choice, and I choice that I have willingly made, I haven’t wasted another minute regretting what I gave up.


10 thoughts on “Accent Wars

  1. Yeah, i’m still in the “educating” the masses phase that there are other words out there :) … Being stopped mid sentence? yeah it was going to happen anyway, I loose my thought mid sentence so this make ME seem less silly. :)
    Funny though, when I make an effort to include an american word to help their under standing, “he forgot his jumper / sweater” they say “yeah I know what you meant” i rarely get the “wtf” look. I get that from my emails… catch up for a cuppa, have some arvo tea?

  2. Malaysians follow British English rather than American English. We are comfortable with both “bathroom” or “toilet’ though when we say “toilet” we really mean the WC. We are comfortable with either “apartment” or “flat’ or “lift” or “elevator”. We prefer “sweater” though, rather than “jumper”. I suspect few of us really understand what a ‘jumper” is. Most of us would have thought that a “jumper” is a sportsman. But we are not Anglophile so maybe there is not this attachment to accent that you feel and the frustration of being wrongly identified. Interesting insight though.

    • Australian English follows Brittish English in most contexts, but there are a few words that follow American English (“eggplant” and “zucchini” rather than “aubergine” and “courgette”). Regardless of who we follow, there’s always ONE words that sounds “right” to most Australians. When you have an Australian (or at least mostly Australian!) accent using all the American words it sounds strange, and Aussies will definitely comment on it!

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  6. Just new to your website and looking forward to reading your book. But as an Aussie mum raising 2 kids cross culturally in Turkey with several of my kids friends being American, I LOVE your insights and perspectives as this has been an area that continues to ‘bite’ me off and on as their accents twist and turn. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • It’s so hard!! There’s so much identity attached to our accents. It’s a question I get regularly in seminars. So many parents feel a pressure to make sure their kids speak their language in their accent, but international life means they’re more than one accent/language – it’s part of the price. I should really write a blog post just about this!

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