How my English accent has made me who I am
“Only after she hung up did she begin to feel the stain of a burgeoning shame spreading all over her, for thanking him, for crafting his words “You sound American” into a garland that she hung around her own neck. Why was it a compliment, an accomplishment, to sound American? [...] She had won, indeed, but her triumph was full of air. Her fleeting victory had left in its wake a vast, echoing way of being that was not hers.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 'Americanah'
I was 9 years old when I started taking English classes at school. I enjoyed them a lot. My dad, originally an English teacher, was ecstatic to finally get me started on this journey. He would show me all his tricks for memorising vocabulary and take me to get new stationery, making sure that I picked up the Received Pronunciation that he was taught at university.
At school, we were also learning some artificial variety of British English, but my accent took a completely different direction. I was obsessed with what I now recognise as mediocre, generic American TV shows. It turned out that I had a knack for languages, I immediately picked up everything I heard, whether it was from a Canadian YouTuber or an imaginary courtroom in Chicago. When I spoke, I recited all of it pretty much indiscriminately and by the time I finished school my accent formed into a more or less universal American variety.
Before I arrived in Leeds, I had never even heard about a Yorkshire accent, or that there would be such a difference between the North and the South of England, or the heated arguments about where the Midlands is. It was only toward the end of my first year that I made English friends, some of whom assumed I was American at first. When I was with them, I felt this internal need to adapt, to conform with them. Although they each had different backgrounds, they all had something I didn’t: English as their native language. They were allowed to make mistakes without anyone thinking they were incompetent. They would joke about the differences between England and America, about who said tea, supper, or dinner. For a long time, I didn’t know how to join the conversation.
It wasn’t until my year abroad in Morocco that I started to integrate into English society. It soon became obvious that most Moroccans had no idea where or what Hungary was, so I started to nod along when my friends would say we were from the UK. Most of my Moroccan teachers assumed I was a native English speaker, and I found myself trying to sound the part more than ever. My intonation started changing, I stopped rolling my Rs. My friends would jokingly correct me whenever I used the American word for something and I loved it, it was like a linguistic puzzle to me. But when I wasn’t careful, the puzzle could turn into a disappearing act. It was like my mind was trying to erase any signs of me being Hungarian. I even asked one of my friends whether I sounded Eastern European at all, confident that the answer would be a hard no. They hesitated for a moment, then carefully said: “There’s just one thing. You mix up your Vs with your Ws.”
After hearing this, I started policing myself. I thought okay, there is only this one piece missing from my puzzle, let’s get to work! I would take a tiny pause before every word that had a V or a W. I would correct myself even in casual conversation because I was acutely aware of the way people with certain accents were mistreated and I considered myself lucky to be so close to a way out. But what I didn’t consider was that the whole game was rigged.
Language is fundamentally political. And what could be more political than English: the lingua franca of the modern world, the language of colonisers, the language you need to perfect to be taken seriously in the West. But what does it even mean to “perfect” your English? Why do we say foreigners “have an accent” when every native speaker’s accent is completely different anyway?
In my desperate attempts to delete every little sign of my Eastern Europeanness, I suddenly remembered this scene from Americanah. The protagonist Ifemelu gets a compliment on her American accent and she has an epiphany. Why should she strive to sound like them? Just like my teachers in Hungary, her teachers in Nigeria would get kids to practice British pronunciation, planting this little seed of English supremacy inside us. If you want to be successful, you must adapt, you must mold yourself until your mouth learns to mimic the Queen of England.
Whether you’re a Northerner interviewing for a job in London, a child of immigrants who finds their parents’ accent embarrassing or an international student afraid to speak in class: you should be proud. Proud of your heritage, proud of your journey, and proud of your own English. It might be the language of colonisers, but the joke’s on them, because it belongs to all of us now.
This is why I have decided to drop the act. I will say trainers if I want to, but sneakers if I feel like it. I will sound British, American, and Hungarian in the same sentence. I will say “Villiam” and “wicious” and not correct myself. Because this language is mine just as much as it is the Queen’s.
Emma is a third year student studying BA Arabic & Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Leeds. She is pursuing a career in civil society and activism. She is interested in dance, music, and politics. Her Instagram handle is @emmaxtorok and her Twitter handle is@torokxemma.