Transplanted to the United States as a child, two accents seemed like a great idea. Until my first play date | Barbara Vitesse

AAt the age of five and a quarter, I was faced with a conundrum. One semester at my British school, where I knew everyone, I traveled thousands of miles across the world to the United States, where I knew no one. The school year was already well underway, which meant everyone would have already made friends with someone who wasn’t the weird expat kid. My chances of integrating were, to say the least, not great.

And so I acted. When school started, I remained silent as I furiously learned to speak like American children – saying “flashlight” and “trunk,” “buddon” instead of button, using the northwest round vowels and conversation. At the start of first year, I looked like everyone else. Unfortunately, with the baffling logic of under-10s, I had decided that my parents would feel betrayed if I lost my English accent. On top of that, we’d be moving home in a few years – if I looked American, I’d be the odd one out again. So I landed on my genius plan: I would be a Yankee at school and an Englishman at home, and neither party would be the wiser.

Barbara Speed ​​and her brother in Kirkland, Washington, circa 1998. Photography: Courtesy of Barbara Speed

My serious miscalculation became apparent when a new friend agreed to come play. The event would involve snacks (good) and opening the Barbie Hair Salon for business (very good), but also confronting my English relative and my American friend in one car (bad). Faced with disaster, I developed the coping techniques that I would rely on for the next five years. These ranged from not speaking at all, to mumbling to my friend so only they could hear, to going upstairs with them as soon as possible, and, if they were forced to speak, to using words that sounded the same with both accents, which is about as easy as using a keyboard that’s missing the letter E.

There hasn’t been a lot of research into “bidialectalism”, perhaps because it’s a version of something we all do, to a greater or lesser extent. Marginalized groups in particular often find themselves forced to code switch; Who hasn’t adopted a posh voice for a phone call with customer service, or slipped deeper into a regional accent when visiting family? But there’s something strange about someone having two distinct accents, with no blur or sliding scale. Even I can admit that a excerpt from John Barrowman switching mid-sentence between an American drawl and a Scottish accent while speaking to the camera and then to members of his family is strangely disconcerting.

But why? The answer, I suppose, is the same reason I was so desperate to sound like those around me in the first place: the way you speak defines you. To have two voices in the same language is to appear false; misleading, even. Liverpudlian actress Jodie Comer’s habit of conducting some of her interviews in Scouse, and others in RP, has given rise to headlines such as “Fans are confused by Jodie Comer’s accent” and ” Jodie Comer’s accent – explained”, as well as a whole genre of TikTok clips suspiciously comparing the two. (The explanation seems to be that she assumes Americans will find RP easier to understand.)

My own problem was solved, in large part, by returning to the UK. My parents were pleasantly surprised that I now spoke to them in the presence of my friends. Then came our first visit to the United States. I practiced my accent beforehand, talking to myself in hushed tones in my room to see if I still had the talent – ​​it was still there, but I could hear exactly where I had become rusty. During the trip I rebuilt it, but the success was disappointing. I was back wondering when and if I should speak, always wondering who was listening. Brené Brown once said that trying to fit in is the opposite of truly belonging. She probably didn’t have in mind a 12-year-old trying to remember how to pronounce the word “egg,” but she was right.

A year or two after the trip, some American friends were to visit us and I made my decision: enough was enough. Granted, this was partly out of necessity, because with the shreds of my American accent, I now sounded like a British actor based in Los Angeles giving a press conference in a horrible transatlantic drawl.

So, carefully, I used my British voice and said “jumper” instead of “pull” and “haich” instead of “aich”. If they noticed, no one mentioned it for the first few days. Until, finally, in the middle of a game of cards, my friend suddenly looked up and said, “Hey, you look British now!” Go fishing.” And that was it.

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