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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Did You Ever Wish You Was from Somewhere Else?

I've been using the Internet / Call Center in Siena to phone home. It is owned by a nice Bangladeshi family. (The only south Asians I have laid eyes on in the city in five days -- it must take some chutzpah to make a move like that, hey?) I just stopped by to see what time they will close tonight. There, in one of the phone booths, is a bovine American woman, shaking the phone receiver at the Bangladeshi woman, saying loudly and slowly, "Stateeek. Toooo much stateek."

Now, I have spoken with the Bangladeshi woman, and she speaks lovely, fluent English. And her Italian sounds damned good to me. Naturally she is going to know Bengali, and perhaps a couple of other languages from the subcontinent, and I bet she knows at least some Arabic. So she has the American woman beaten in knowing languages perhaps six to one, and yet the American woman is addressing her as if she is a mentally defective five-year-old.

And what do you think the "theory" is behind using the funny accent? Foreigners speak English with a funny accent, so they will understand you better if *you* speak it with a funny accent as well?

4 comments:

  1. The theory isn't entirely without merit. I know a couple English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers who say they are able to understand other ESL speakers (even from different countries) better than native speakers. The ones I've spoken with say that the accent makes it easier although I'm not sure one could entirely rule out the simpler or more common grammar and vocabulary employed by beginners.

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  2. Yes, yes I have.

    I never spent much time in Europe, but from my experiences in the Pacific, Asia, India and the ME, most of the hosts were far more open to giving the benefit of the doubt than many Americans would have given them if the tables were turned.

    I often had to play the role of referee between the locals and my drunken comrades in order to find a happy medium. I don't know why I assumed that role, it just kind of happened that way.

    Interestingly, after a visit to Australia almost all of us were talking with Aussie accents. We weren't trying to be insensitive or insulting, it just naturally rubbed off on us-- we couldn't help it. It was accentual intoxication.

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  3. traumerei, I really think it is because they speak less rapidly and with a greater effort towards clear diction... I mean, how could having, say, a Japanese accent make it easier for someone Argentinian to understand you?

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  4. Yeah the slower speech and simpler diction employed by non-native speakers are good explanations. The vowel sounds between Spanish and Japanese are pretty similar as well.

    I didn't really press the ESL folks with whom I spoke but it was certainly surprising.

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