What do you sound like?

I was waiting with some other students before a 7:30 a.m. class the other day. One was fretting about submitting the homework due that day. We had been instructed to draw some diagrams and bring them to class, but she’d submitted them to the instructor via Dropbox and was worried the instructor wouldn’t accept them. I started explaining that I was sure the teacher would be fine about it, because she is the kind of teacher that really wants her students to do well,  and that I thought the only reason we’d been asked to bring the assignment was because it had involved drawing something and  the teacher was probably trying to make it easy on people who didn’t have access to scanners.

As I was talking, I became aware that the worried student, the woman opposite her, and a guy sitting on the floor fiddling with his laptop were looking at me somewhat strangely, with wide eyes. I started to wonder if I’d somehow said something different than I thought. Or if I’d rubbed my eyes and smeared my eyeliner into a panda-like pattern. I usually manage to avoid doing that until I get home: I can somehow muster enough will power to keep my hands away from my eyes until I walk through the front door, but it was an early class and I am not a morning person.   “Why are they looking at me like that…?” was the thought in my head. There was a pause, followed by “Oh my God. I love your accent. I nearly died,” from the guy sitting on the floor. The others nodded.

Oh – the accent. That is one of the strangest things for me as a Brit living in the US. People love the British accent. It gets me every time. I forget I sound different. I’ll be in a store and get asked, “Do I detect an accent?” Or “You have a bit of an accent there.” My first experience of the accent adoration was years ago when I went to stay with a friend in Wisconsin. We went into a book store. As I was paying, the clerk asked me something, ascertained I was British, and told me to ‘Stay right there. My manager loves British accents. ” Um, ok.  Said manager was summoned and further examples of accent were duly produced. In the bank a couple of months ago, I was in a hurry and hoped to run in and out, but on hearing my accent, the bank clerk quizzed me about where to go in London and then asked for advice in travelling in Europe. My accent makes me an expert on travel! My husband and I went to a yard sale a few weeks ago. The woman and her elderly mother heard me speak. Oh my goodness – out came albums of magazine cuttings of the royal family, books of castles of England, and a discussion of Churchill. The elderly mother said, with a definite twinkle in her eye, that she liked Prince Harry, although her daughter seemed to be on Team William. Then there is the lady at the supermarket who, on hearing me speak, always tells me excitedly that she owns part of a castle in Ireland. I smile politely and don’t point out that Ireland is not England – but I understand that a lot of people are unsure what exactly the United Kingdom really is. (And what about Great Britain? Find out here.) I’m also not sure how real the castle is. I have a lot of people telling me that their family name is this or that, coming from some small town in England. It’s invariably somewhere I’ve never heard of, but I enthuse and pretend I know what they are talking about. The place my accent gets the best reaction is at college. I get to pretend I am more intelligent than I really am! One teacher actually said “It doesn’t matter what you say with that accent; we’re all going to believe every word you say.”

But the funniest thing about my accent? The last time I was living in the UK (in London, in 2008), other British people would ask me where I was from. I’d reply Kent. They would then ask, “But where originally?” Um, still Kent. I was born there and lived there until I was 18. I’d confirm I was born in England. They’d then frown.  According to other Brits, I “have a bit of an accent.”

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13 thoughts on “What do you sound like?

  1. I’m trying to think what a Kent accent sounds like. S.E. England is as near as I can pinpoint it! Me, I have a ‘Norff lund’n’ accent (unfortunately) with a bit of a… er… ‘rusty hinge’ sound to some of my words, though I was born closer to the east bit of the capital. But isn’t it strange how Americans can hear British accents as just one homogenous entity? (I had an American friend years ago who tried to imitate a scouse accent and came out with the improbable “Um rooning for the boos”.)

    Here’s a tip for when you’re in a hurry. Do a quasi-Boston (Mass.) accent. They’ll be puzzled but will probably not stop you and comment! (Think Lloyd Grossman if you can’t bring the accent immediately to mind.)

    • I think S.E. England would cover my accent. It’s a rather indefinable one, though I’d say the way a lot of people speak in the area where I grew is quite influenced by east London accents.
      It does seem that all UK accents sound the same to Americans. In fact, I often get asked if I’m Australian! Not even close 🙂

      • That made me laugh. I did once get stuck in the ‘dunny’ (although I didn’t call it that!). There was no one around, but luckily the toilets here have a huge gap between the bottom of where they end and the floor, and I’m fairly small, so I had to crawl out from underneath to escape. It would have been a comical sight for anyone who’d walked in.

  2. Reminds me of having pee with half a coachload of other women in a roadside loo in Spain in the late 70s… small saloon style doors and guess what – it was a gents! We posted a ‘lookout’ at either end and did what we could with care… !!

  3. Great post, I can definitely hear your voice as I read this and remember with warmth how reassuring you always were to anxious students. I can’t believe you’re still doing classes at 7:30am though!

    When in Canada I get picked as a Brit and when in the UK people assume I’m Canadian, Australian or from another part of England – I’ll say I’m from Kent next time and see the reaction I get. Sometimes I can even hear my accent change mid sentence, usually in response to particular words and phrases I’m choosing – freaky!

    • I know what you mean about changing part of the way through a sentence. I find I also change a little according to the person I’m speaking to.
      Definitely strange to be taking early morning classes – especially now as a student. I always thought our students at ELS were crazy, but I get it now! It feels so productive to have a whole class under my belt before most people have even started work!

    • In my first job in Korea I worked with a guy with a really strong Irish accent. I asked some students if they ever had a hard time understanding him. They said they couldn’t hear any difference between him and any of the other teachers. Surprised me, but it was an interesting insight into how we sounded to the students. Mind you, I had one hagwon student ask if I was German because he thought I didn’t sound like a native speaker. No idea why he picked German.

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