Code Switching   2 comments

The language you speak is so much a part of who you are… or of how you want to be perceived.

Since the British colonized Australia, Aussies have slowly changed the way they speak. My grandmother sounds much more British than my mother or I do.  With the popularization of American culture in Australia, perhaps the next generation of Australians will sound more American.

In fact, I’ve often wondered if this changing of accent is a national pastime. Throughout my life I’ve tried to change how I speak depending on where I lived. Most often it was to appear to fit in.

Growing up in rural Australia, I spoke in the slow nasal drawl many Americans associate with crocodile wranglers the likes of Steve Irwin and Paul Hogan.  In my small coastal town, if you sounded different, you were thought of as a lowly, annoying tourist. At best you were ignored. At worst you were scorned.

My dad, who had big plans for me to return to Melbourne and get an education, often tried to rid my speech of country norms: “Don’t say yep; say yes.” I ignored him, of course. After all, I wouldn’t fit in with my friends if I spoke what I perceived as “the Queen’s English.”

In college, it wasn’t “the done thing” for an English lit. major to speak like an ocker dairy farmer, so I shed my country accent for an “educated” accent. I guess Dad got his way after all. Gone were my “G’days, earbashings, rapts, and sheilas.” These markers of my country past were replaced by more standard Australianisms. After all, I planned to become an English teacher.

A move to the United States brought new changes. Confounded by more than a few Americans apologizing: “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand a thing you just said,” meant I felt the need to change how I spoke a second time. “I want to lose my accent.” I once told my American husband. This time, I not only changed my vocabulary, I changed my pronunciation, especially my vowels.

Nowadays, it sounds as though I have achieved my wish. My Australian accent has muted to the point that I can pass as American on first meeting; assuming I don’t talk too much. Yet this Americanization of my speech has lead to new, unexpected challenges. When I’m back in Australia, I’m almost always perceived as American, leading to a loss of face. Instead of being welcomed as a local, I’m now perceived as not only a tourist, but an American tourist. “You sound pretty much American, except for now and then you have some Australian flavor,” one saleswoman recently remarked when I said I’d grown up in the area.

The way I speak has changed to suit my surroundings, but I wonder, does it really reflect who I am?

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Posted March 10, 2011 by Cyn Hatch in ESL Teaching

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2 responses to “Code Switching

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  1. Great story!
    Do our surroundings reflect who we are? Or do we reflect our surroundings? AND Who decides? I guess it’s partially in the way we react to folks in our surroundings who are ‘reacting’ to our changes.

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