Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Accents and America



I'm a huge music fan so although I don't follow them every week, I can never resist even scholocky music reality shows like X-Factor. But I was totally thrown off guard last week not by the music but by front runner Melanie Amaro's accent. After two months in the competition, intense emotions finally unleashed her true Virgin Islands accent, which she had covered with a proper American drawl.  Fans watched amazed as a heavy Caribbean patois poured out of Melanie's mouth. "This is the real Melanie," she explained when asked about her suddenly transformed speech pattern.  The singer had learned to adopt an American accent when people complained that they couldn't understand her.  So, like so many immigrants to this country, she felt compelled to blend in and "cater" to American sensibilities. I watched with tears in my eyes because I know the emotional and psychological toll that this embeds on someone's spirit.  It's not simply a matter of speech but identity.

Melanie realized that being a staggeringly talented 19-year-old from the tiny island of Tortola, British Virgin Islands, wasn't quite as acceptable as being a 19-year-old from Florida, which is where she moved a few years ago.  Lots of fans are saying her accent is cool and it makes her more "interesting." (We won't even get into descriptions of her accent as "Rihanna-esque" because that's the only Caribbean accent Americans  know. For the record, Rihanna is from Barbados, the accents aren't the same.)  That may be true but the ugly reality is that Melanie would never have been embraced  by the American public on the same level if she had started the competition with her accent. Americans do not like the effort it takes to understand a foreign accent. You have to adjust your listening to the cadence of the speaker and that's just too much to be bothered with.  Forget the myth of the American Melting Pot, that's just folklore.  I have too many friends who just like Melanie, felt compelled to lose their accents as soon as they discovered that Americans hold it against them. Instead of thinking that a person with an accent is most likely bi or multilingual and how beneficial that is, they think of how much easier it would be if everyone spoke the same language. I'm not making this up. The University of Chicago conducted a study that shows that Americans believe people with accents are less credible. So if who you really are isn't  considered credible, where does that leave you?  It leaves you trying to be someone you aren't. Melanie has acknowledged  that now that she's revealed her true self, there's no going back. I'm happy for her. An online gambling website has already predicted that she has the highest odds of winning the X Factor. I just wish the odds of retaining your accent and your identity in America, were higher.

6 comments:

A Cuban In London said...

I don't watch the show, can't even stand it but all praise to her. I know how hard it is to "blend in". Thanks for such a powerful post. Great, great stuff.

Greetings from London.

Catherine said...

It happens everywhere for sure - I had my original cockney accent knocked out of me by " posh" university pals.....greetings from Paris...

Andrew Graeme Gould said...

Perhaps the problem is that Americans just don't get to hear a wide variety of English accents, and that may be why that although in more cosmopolitan San Francisco this year not a single person was taken aback by my Australian accent, this was not the case in smaller towns at times, where I could tell that the surprise when I started to speak was obviously unsettling for some. Back in Australia (where I spent most of my life until a while back), we are most accustomed to hearing American English on television and in movies, with the dominance of US popular culture, and there lies the difference, I believe.

Fly Girl said...

Cubano, hard indeed.

Catherine, did they suggest you lose your accent or did it just happen gradually because you were around them?

Andrew, that's a good point. However, I'm talking about major cities where there are a variety of accents and there is generally not an openness to them. English, French and Italian accents are the most widely accepted in my observation and even those can be met with derision.

jen laceda said...

I like her accent :)

Fly Girl said...

Jen, it's a thick British Virgin Islands accent and I'm glad she won't hide it anymore.