As a native Californian, I always considered myself not to have an accent. Southerners have accents. Bostonians have accents. British people have accents. Don’t even get me started on Indian people.
But me? No way.
After graduating from high school, I made the audacious move across state lines to Portland, Oregon. In terms of the culture shock scale, this hardly registered. Here’s a compare/contrast:
Lots of liberal people / Lots of liberal people
Beautiful wine country / Beautiful wine country
Stunning coastline / Stunning coastline
Good food / Good food
Sunny / Cloudy
Good Mexican food / Only one good taqueria in the entire metro area
Portland was novel, but not exactly exotic. I considered myself in the same realm – not particularly exotic.
My first day on campus, I was talking to a couple of girls from two other states – the usual chitchat: Where are you from? What’s your dorm? What classes do you have? Pretty banal stuff.
While I was talking, the two of them were smiling and exchanging mildly bemused glances.
When I paused, one of them jumped in, “ Excuse me, where are you from?”
“Oooooooh! I thought you had an accent.”
Honestly, this was complete news to me. I found a fellow Californian and she confirmed – we did indeed have accents.
Suddenly all my verbal quirks were laid bare. Apparently, people in other states don’t generally say, “ I was like…what?!!” or recount dialogues from earlier in the day by saying, “So he was like, ‘What are you doing later?’ and I’m all, ‘Nothing. Why?’”
Apparently, they don’t say everything as if they were asking a question. And they don’t talk so quickly.
My inscrutable accent was confirmed by the ultimate arbiter: someone from another country in the process of learning English. My friend’s Brazilian “sister” came to visit and she rated all of us on intelligibility. #1 by a long shot was our friend from Ohio, proving that state’s superiority in…neutrality. Ohio is prime recruiting ground for bland national newscasters. Wyoming, New Mexico and Oregon were all passable. Dead last: me.
“Sometimes, I do not understand you,” she said in her adorable Portuguese-tinged accent.
After four years living with friends from all different states, I concluded the California accent was not only a habit I was unlikely to kick, but something that I could wear with pride. After all, California is, like, awesome?!
At the same time, I was trying to kick another accent – my American accent.
My fave song about being bilingual – con mis dos lenguas te voy a enamorar!!! Watch out…
Learning another language is always a comedy of errors, and my foibles in Cuba and Mexico were no exception to the rule. Some classmates along the line seemed to pick up the language effortlessly, others had been studying for years and were still painful to hear. I thought I was doing pretty well until I heard any recording of my voice.
After a year in Mexico, my friend, Diana, said to me, “Sierra, I am begging you to do me this favor. PLEASE change the message on your answering machine. It’s horrible!”
I had recorded it my first week living in Mexico, giving it a couple of tries, then just simply giving up. As she pointed out, she was the one who had to endure my mangled Spanish every time she called me. We recorded a new one – the crowning achievement of my progression in the Spanish language.
There are other indications of my progression – as well as the limits of my fluidity.
At a recent quinceanera, the priest battled through the entire mass in his leaden book Spanish, with that American twang. Afterwards, I asked my boyfriend if I sounded like that sometimes. He told me I didn’t sound that bad – then again, he has a vested interest in not pissing me off.
Perhaps the best compliment I’ve gotten was from a Spaniard who called a wrong number. A guy called our house in Portland speaking Spanish so my roommate passed it over to me. Confusion ensued. After 10 minutes of back and forth, we were able to establish that this guy did indeed have the number correct, but the former girlfriend he was trying to reach no longer lived there and I didn’t have any idea where she might be.
“You speak Spanish very well,” he lisped. “I cannot tell where you are from – Eres Latina?”
By this he meant someone with Spanish-speaking parents who grew up in the US.
You know what? I’ll take it.