Beyond the Accent : Why learning a second language is more difficult than it sounds

This was the first article I wrote for PINOYexpats as part of the theme Buwan Ng Wika. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever written, but I’m so glad I finally found a copy so I can post it here.

A new immigrant, Lola was gardening when a neighbour greeted her with a jaunty, ‘Good day!’

‘Thank you,’ Lola replied as she fluffed up her hair.

Two weeks after arriving in Sydney, my family was at my school for an interview. ‘How was your flight?’ the principal kindly asked my parents.

‘Oh, we’re living at my sister-in-laws’ house,’ Mum replied.

It turns out that Lola thought the neighbour was admiring the colour of her hair dye, while Mum thought the school principal was asking her about our flat. When these stories are recounted to friends, we discover similar anecdotes around their first contact with colloquial Australian English – or what many people jokingly refer to as ‘Strine.

Language fluency is not just about the ability to remember words or put together grammatically correct sentences. Language is as much a cultural construct as it is a cognitive skill. The ‘English’ we learn back home sounds, feels and evolves differently to the ‘English’ of the Aussies, Kiwis, Poms and Yanks.

You say fifty, I say pifty

The most obvious difference is, of course, the accent. What we hear as an accent is actually a complex combination of physiological constraints, vocal patterns and subconscious rules. Most of these were developed and ingrained in childhood while learning our first language. Re-organising them to accommodate a new language is not easy.

Sometimes, we learn a rule but don’t apply it consistently. So, we say pifty instead of fifty. Sometimes, our mouth and tongue cannot co-ordinate the exact configuration needed to produce the right sound. So, we say might when we really mean mate. Sometimes, our ears cannot distinguish the subtle differences between sounds that native speakers can. So, we say tok (‘talk’) instead of t(h)awk(h).

Other factors, such as the rhythm and volume of our speech, also contribute to the sound of language. Is it any wonder that we find it almost impossible to get rid of our accents?

Sometimes, it’s more noticeable around other expats (my husband refers to this as my palengke mode) and it can take a while before we feel comfortable with a second language. For years, a lady I know wouldn’t say a word – no ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ – when paying for her groceries, not because she was rude but because she was too embarrassed to say anything in case she made a mistake.

If this sounds familiar, it helps to take small steps. Try a simple ‘hello’ to your neighbour. Practise your skills with people who are likely to greet you with patience and kindness, such as people who attend the same religious service as you do. Or, practise around strangers – after all, you’ll never see them again!

We barrack, we don’t root

The words you choose can belie your status as a second language learner. For example, Aussies would never say, ‘I’m rooting for Lleyton Hewitt’ because in ‘Strine, unlike American English, rooting has a very different connotation.

Aussies are mad about sports and ‘Strine has intricate jargon revolving around the country’s sporting past-times. Football is rarely about soccer; rugby has two codes; Aussie Rules isn’t really footy unless you’re from Melbourne; and cricket is not a little green insect. Attending a good, old Aussie BBQ is a cinch when you can navigate through the intricate world of forward passes, knock-ons, scrums, and spin bowling.

On the other hand, mention the words viand or epicanthic fold to an Aussie and you’ll probably trigger a lively conversation that begins with, ‘What the hell does that mean?’

Getting a word in – when is it my turn?

It’s one thing to know what to say, it’s another to learn when to say it. My uni lecturer recalls spending her first month in Russia virtually silent as she tried to work out how to start a conversation, even though she was fluent in Russian. Conversation is a social activity. There are rules. Aussies may seem brusque to Filipinos used to easing into conversation with niceties and small talk. Expats may seem rude and inconsiderate when they interrupt or raise their voices in excitement.

There’s no easy way to learn these rules. Immerse yourself in the language. Talk to native speakers and pay attention to their reactions. And if you spot the lone Aussie in a Filipino fiesta looking bemused, it’s probably because he can’t figure out how to join the conversation.

Familiarity breeds friendship

Filipinos love using titles; Aussies don’t. Uni lecturers, lawyers, priests and politicians are rarely offended when addressed by their first names. This can be disconcerting to Filipinos who are used to negotiating a multitude of honorifics. When a friend paid a courtesy call to another Filipino solicitor in the area, he was amused to hear his colleague’s secretary say, ‘Attorney So-and-So is very busy at the moment.’

Aussies are casual, egalitarian and suspicious of authority. Don’t be uncomfortable if someone asks you to call them by their first name or if they call you by name. Take it as a compliment.

Saying what you mean

What is polite in one culture can be rude or unfriendly in another, or pompous in yet another. Aussies tend to be more direct and confronting than Filipinos and their language reflects this. For example, an expat may find it intimidating to say ‘no’ to her colleague, teacher or mother-in-law.

Back home, admitting that you didn’t understand what was said can cause loss of face and embarrassment. I recall a news article on foreign nurses who incorrectly administered medication to patients because they didn’t fully understand the instructions they were given even though doctors had asked them if they understood the instructions.

Not every question is a matter of life and death, but saying ‘no’ is not the end of the world, either. Nor is asking for a promotion if you think you deserve one.

What does all this mean for Filipino expats? Second language fluency is a goal that many of us strive for but probably won’t ever fully achieve to the point where we sound like native speakers. This doesn’t mean we’re less educated, less intelligent or deliberately trying not to assimilate with our surroundings. It merely demonstrates that our expressions have a slightly different flavour that represents an exotic blend of cultures and brings a unique taste into the rich feast of words and sounds that, together, form language.

This piece was first published in the August 2005 issue of PINOYexpats, an e-zine for Filipino expatriates.

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