It shouldn’t be like that but, having lived in the US for almost fifteen years, I know that too often a foreign accent is a handicap.
When I arrived to the Midwest to do my graduate degree in English at one of the state universities, I asked my linguistic professor how I could get rid of my Israeli accent. He wasn’t optimistic. I wanted to know if a strong accent indicated a lack of musical talent, and answered that based on what he had read it was a matter of personal identity. There were some people, he called them the Chamaeleon type, who could speak with almost no trace of a foreign accent. He felt that subconsciously I probably didn’t want to lose my Israeli identity. This explanation was reassuring, it was a relief to hear that it wasn’t my fault. I am not sure if this is still a valid theory, but I am not going to look for conflicting evidence.
As a person with a foreign accent I was often treated with superiority, some people doubted my intelligence even if this attitude was camouflaged with politeness. In the small town where we lived there weren’t many foreigners, and since I fit the Caucasian square on official forms, people just didn’t expect me to open my mouth and speak with a foreign accent. It usually threw them off and then came the question: “I beg your pardon?” Normally once I had repeated the sentence, the next comment was: “what a cute accent, where are you from?”
I never thought of my accent as “cute,” it was who I was. In the US it was also the only conspicuous sign of my foreignness, because otherwise I “could pass.” It went with me everywhere: to the grocery store, to the gas station, to my girls’ school, to work etc. Some people even talked to me in a slow loud voice as though my accent made me hard of hearing
I cannot recall a single phone conversation during which I wasn’t asked “I beg your pardon?” I had to make my point clearly and concisely as the phone operators were often impatient. But still talking on the phone had always been easier than the initial face to face interaction, since on the phone people only heard my voice and they were able to concentrate on the content of my words.
Unfortunately there were also some people who were suspicious of people with a foreign accent, or strangers as the sociologist Georg Simmel calls them. He defines “‘stranger’ as a person who comes today and stays tomorrow, whose position in a group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.”
In this definition Simmel shows the connection between the position of the stranger in the group and the fact that he hasn’t belonged to it from the beginning. Those were key factors in our decision to go back to Israel after many years in the US.
This morning, after being away from Israel for several months, I spent several hours on the phone trying (without success) to reinstate my internet. Conversing with unhelpful telephone operators, I was thankful for one thing, I didn’t hear the words “I beg your pardon” even once. It’s good to be home