Perfect Strangers: Seeing And Hearing Ourselves

Here is a familiar phenomenon: we hear an audio recording of ourselves and are surprised and perplexed to find out we are listening to a stranger; we are used to hearing our voices from the ‘inside’; but when we hear a recording, we do so from the ‘outside.’ The timbre and tone of our voice is unfamiliar; we suddenly realize that the impact we imagine our words to have, the physical presence we think we command with our pronouncements, differs from that which we imagined it to be. Despite understanding the physics of this acoustic phenomena, it retains some of its mystery, continuing to imbue our daily conversations with an air of strangeness. A related phenomenon is finding out that you have an ‘accent’; soon after I arrived in the US some thirty years ago, I was informed of this fact, and it surprised me to no end. Where was it? I couldn’t hear it; I didn’t know what it was, even though I knew Americans spoke English in a manner quite distinct from mine.

But it is not just in the aural dimension that this perplexity arises: sometimes we observe a video recording of ourselves and find that we are strangers at home again. Our body language seems awkward, not as smooth as we hoped it be; our gestures not as practiced; our facial expressions seem to convey too much, too little; the emotions that we thought we were conveying are not the ones that are seemingly being transmitted by our bodies. As a teacher, used to ‘performing’ for ‘audiences’ of students, I am often disconcerted by my awareness of this gap in perceptions; I have never seen a video of myself teaching, though I have one of a conference presentation I made a few years ago; the viewing experience was, to put it mildly, jarring. I have never been able to view that twenty-minute video in its entirety; I switch it off after a few minutes, unable to reconcile myself to the presence of that stranger up on stage, pacing back and forth, his hands sometimes in his pocket, sometimes adjusting his eyeglasses, sometimes pointing at the projection screen.

We are used to being ‘misperceived’ because of language, of course; we write letters and essays and find ourselves unable to convey in untangled form the straight lines of the emotions and thoughts we entertain; we complain, voluminously, of how language renders us inarticulate; we seek refuge in terms like ‘ineffable’; some even invoke Nietzsche and say ‘whatever we have words for is already dead in our hearts; and so on. But we had imagined that there was at least one dimension in which we would be seen and heard clearly; and the audio and video recording tells us that even that comfort is denied us.

There is the ‘outside me,’ the one the world sees and hears, and there is the ‘inside me.’ We imagine ourselves to be physically ‘transparent,’ clearly visible to all, but we seem to always don a mask, one we cannot remove. We realize that our selves are personas, masks we use to navigate our way through this world, but we had imagined that was because we were selective in what we let ‘out’; but even that reminds us of the gap between what we sense from the ‘inside’ and what the world views from the ‘outside.’ Strangers in a strange land, indeed.

Bilinguality And Being ‘Different People In Different Languages’

Over at LitHub, Ana Menéndez asks that age-old question ‘Are We Different People in Different Languages,’ and, by way of a partial answer, writes:

For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.

Immigrants, of course, have known this forever. We inhabit two worlds at all times; one remembered, romanticized, fantasized about, wistfully recollected; the other, lived and grappled with. The first seeps into the second’s pores at all times: accents poke their heads up and demand and compel recognition–in both directions. The older one marks you an outsider, unable to settle; the newer one as a traveler, unable to return home.  (In the case of the Indian immigrant to the US, who very often brings a variant, a ‘dialect,’ a local flavor of English with him, you carry around traces of a distinctive idiom in your new linguistic home. Sometimes you emphasize the wrong syllable and you turn heads, or prompt an ‘excuse me?’; at those moments, you sense, awkwardly, that your cover is blown.)

Speaking in two languages–moving from one to the other–sometimes in the course of a single day or evening or night, prompts thoughts of this act of living in two worlds, two realities quite easily. You step into a corner, accost your interlocutor, and begin speaking. At that moment, you sense curtains drawn, a stepping across the threshold. You are, speaking so figuratively that it might as well be literal, in a different place, a different time. But that’s not all that’s changed.

For I become a different person. I have a new and distinct sense of humor; I am voluble and expressive in different ways; I can summon up new flavors of pungency and astringency. Not better, not more desirable, just different, able to accomplish different things and facilitate different projects. Then, someone speaks, summons me, calls out to me, from another land; I answer, switching back, and I am transported again. You don’t ‘belong’ anywhere, a loss that sometimes induces a wistfulness and longing, but very often a rueful appreciation of this always unstable position.

I am, as I often realize, many people. The languages I speak remind me of that in the most distinctive and pleasurable of ways.    

Note: I was compelled to make note of these observations this morning for the best reason of all. Last night, I attended a dinner in Brooklyn that was hosted by a high-school friend. She had invited two other classmates of mine (all of us residents of the US for some three decades now.). As might be imagined, over the course of the evening, I moved between the two languages I speak the most fluently. We saw the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ differently depending on the language we spoke at any given instant. We drove by car, back and forth, but that was not the only traveling we did.

Speaking In Accents – II

In response to my post yesterday, a Facebook friend offered the following perspicuous comments:

I have no control over my accent and it breaks my heart when my dialect goes missing – and faking it/forcing it is difficult and problematic to boot. I just want so badly to rub my accent in the face of every stereotype of the illiterate drunken welfare bum, but code switching happens even when I don’t want it to. So often dialect becomes kind of trivialized, but really, in my experience, it’s at the core of cultural identity.

[T]he final point in the blog post about [Samir’s] unconscious ability as a linguistic sponge contrasted with the observation that Americans rarely pick up Indian accent features even if surrounded by them is SO IMPORTANT. Power and perception of prestige is such a huge dimension guiding whether accents are abandoned, modified, or clung to….in my own life, I’ve observed how so many Newfoundlanders move away and lose their accents – learn to speak ‘correctly,’ ugh – but I can’t think of examples of Canadians who move to Newfoundland and pick up the local way of speaking in a significant way. [links added]

Accents can be (are?) markers of privilege and power. The immigrant loses his accent, but not all kinds of immigrants; it depends on who is immigrating, and where.

Accents and assimilation go together; those that seek to assimilate, often seek to lose their accents; those that don’t want to, or don’t need to, do not. There is little you can do about skin color or physical appearance, but perhaps there is a great deal that can be done about the way you sound. (Witness the popularity of ‘accent removal classes‘ in the US, for instance.) And such linguistic assimilation can be crucially important.

A reminder of an accent, especially in mixed company, is a galling business. Even if you aren’t seeking assimilation consciously, it can be a simple reminder of difference, of outside status. These reminders can vary: sometimes its the request to speak slower, to repeat oneself; sometimes its the insensitive impromptu mimicry; sometimes its the well-meant but often awkward, “I love it when you pronounce X like that”; sometimes its the simple query, “What kind of accent is that?” The accented speaker feels the spotlight turn on him; he had thought he had sneaked in, but his papers have been asked for, and they’ve been found wanting. His cover is blown.

More problematically, an accent can simply disguise your content with its form; you might be making eminent sense, but the overlaying accent invokes a prejudice that clouds comprehension. In some kinds of conversation, some kinds of accents don’t work. It’s easier to talk about cricket in an Indian accent than it is about baseball or football; I’m supposed to be talking about, and dispensing wisdom on, the former, but not about the latter. I will not be heard in the latter case.

All accents are not equal, of course. In my twenty-seven years in the US, I’ve never seen an Italian or French friend told their accented English was difficult to understand, or asked to repeat themselves, or had it mimicked to their face. Their listeners strain to understand them; these accents are markers of sophisticated European cultures, signals of sophistication. On a related note, I’ve never heard complaints about Italian or French speakers talking to each other in their home languages in mixed company, a grouse all too often directed at other more ‘insular’ folk from lands a little further east.

I’ll never lose my accent; I wouldn’t know how even as it occasionally synchronizes with the speech of those around me. My daughter will realize, soon enough, her father sounds different from most around her. Hopefully, she won’t be too confused or mortified by the difference between her Brooklyn accent and my mutt one.

Speaking In Accents – I

Like every human on this planet, I speak with an accent. In my case, I speak English with a curious, hybrid, mongrelized accent – Indian, but bearing the impress of twenty-seven years on the US East Coast. It is distinct and unmistakable–no American will ever think I have grown up in the US. It is clear I’m from ‘elsewhere.’ (I mix up my Ws and Vs, I do not always pronounce vowels in the clipped style so distinctive of American English, and of course, I sometimes emphasize syllables in my own idiosyncratic way.) Sometimes, when I travel, Europeans–and others too–think I have an American accent, but Americans know it is not. Interestingly, because the Indian accent has some intonation patterns similar to that of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh accents, I’ve sometimes been asked–only in the US, not elsewhere–why I’m speaking in a brogue.  (In the opening scenes of Twin Town, the Lewis brothers, from Swansea, Wales, are shown talking to their mother–I think–in hospital; their conversation is only partially audible. I could have sworn I was listening to Indians.) And of course, because I speak English with an accent, it is a common enough suggestion that English is not my ‘first language’, that rather it is my ‘second language.’ But as I noted here a while ago, English is my first language in every relevant dimension.

When I speak to Indians, whether here in the US or in India, as the conversation proceeds, the Indian roots of my English become ever more prominent till, finally, it seems to me I’m speaking English the way I used to when I lived in India. As my brother said to me when I first traveled back to India after spending nearly three years in the US, “You were speaking funny when you got off the plane but by the time we got home, you’d become normal again.”

Once, I was accused of feigning an accent–a particularly damning accusation of insincerity and inauthenticity as far as my interlocutor was concerned. I was the archetypal post-colonial, trying to sneak into the club. But for me, the only partial Americanization of my accent has been a subtle process; I have not been conscious of it being molded and shaped as I spoke English in the US. Instead, it has seemed to me that as I have participated in conversations, my spoken English has, in a kind of sympathetic dance, aligned itself with that of the speaker.  A related observation was made by my wife who pointed out that when I conversed with a good French friend of mine, I seemed  to start throwing around Gallic shrugs by the dozen. And then, lastly, when I lived in Australia, I did pick up, quite quickly, many distinct Australianisms.

No American, of course, has had his spoken English acquire an Indian accent by talking to me, so perhaps the original accusation did have some weight. Perhaps there is a bit of Zelig in me–in the linguistic dimension. More on this anon.