Where Are You From?
I’m a story repeater.
Give me the flimsiest of excuses and I’ll tell my favorite yarns with gleeful indifference to anyone’s familiarity with the subject. Most people have their favorite stories — the ones we like to tell because they’re funny or meaningful to us or just because they say something about who we are. I can appreciate the joy of repetition, but there’s one story I have to tell over and over that I dearly wish I didn’t have to: the one where people ask me where I’m from.
English has been my primary language for 18 years, but I came to the UK as an almost-adult, and because of this, I’ll always have an accent. After all these years, it’s pretty mellow and not particularly distinctive, but curiosity is evergreen and most people simply can’t help themselves: “I can’t quite place your accent!” I answer the question quickly before moving on to another subject, irritated at the conversational dead end. Sure, we can discuss country facts, but I’ve answered this question in every possible way over nearly two decades. There’s simply nowhere interesting left for it to go.
It’s a bratty complaint, right? I’m a white Western European immigrant to a primarily white Western country; I’m not exactly experiencing discrimination. But that question — it’s every damn day. “Where are you from?” The implied message is subtle, but it’s very clear: I don’t quite belong.
I didn’t speak a word of English until I was 10 years old. From the first English lesson at school — “I am Jill, I am Bill” — I had this unshakable feeling that this was really, really important. Even at 10, I understood that this language was the key to the world, and I knew that I needed to learn it if I wanted to travel and meet people whose lives were different from mine. It took me five years to speak English well enough to get by, and nine years to be fully fluent. Now it’s my primary language — speaking, working, dreaming. When I speak what was my native language, I reach into English when I can’t find the words because it’s the language that I live in now; it’s the sound closest to my heart. So, tell me: Where am I from?
Accents are a social identity; we tend to prefer accents we are familiar with. Our attachment to language starts in the womb, and research shows that babies who are just a few months old will prefer a person who speaks in their own language and accent. This preference for people who sound like we do continues as we grow up — research demonstrates that adults will deem people who speak with a foreign accent to be less trustworthy.
Judging a person based on their accent may be an evolutionary trait to discern who’s part of your tribe and who’s not, but in the modern world, it will just as often lead to stereotyping and discrimination. With increasing globalization, we’re constantly surrounded by people who sound different. In 2013, the United Nations estimated that 232 million people were living outside their country of origin, having migrated either to seek refuge or employment.
On the surface, an accent tells you where someone was born. Beyond country and region, accents also tell us something about which social class a person grew up in and, likely, their level of education. It can represent a strong bond: When researchers looked into why some Scots spoke with stronger accents than others from the same area, they found that a heavy accent was correlated with support for Scottish independence.
When I first moved to England, at age 20, I spoke English with an American twang, as is the case for lots of Europeans who were influenced by TV. After a year or so, I made a conscious choice to try to shift my accent toward the British, as I figured I’d probably stay here and it would sound a bit more coherent. I’ve gotten better at it over the years — it’s now at the point where I can travel to America and not have anyone question where I’m from, as I sound British enough to them. But to a native Brit, my accent has never quite passed the sniff test.
Of course, the moment you start poking at it, you realize that no one has a plain accent. I asked a few native Britons whom I perceive to speak a “plain” English about it, and they all rejected the notion that they don’t have an accent. What we recognize as “plain British voice” is actually received pronunciation (RP), a social accent based on the speech of southern England. Some call it the Queen’s English, Oxford English, or BBC English, but in any case, RP is associated with education, authority, and privilege.
Everyone reveals things about themselves in the way they sound — even the queen’s accent is far too posh to be described as neutral. My friend Chris has an accent typical of the London commuter belt, specific to the town where he grew up. My friend Mike has a North London accent. My friend Gavin is a proper Northerner, no explanation necessary. But what they all confirmed, after thinking about it for a moment, was that they’re rarely asked where they were from. It was either obvious, they reckoned, or people didn’t ask because they hadn’t been flagged as “other,” so it wasn’t very interesting.
Accents are a point of connection. We’re constantly influenced by the people around us, and that extends to accents — any American who’s moved to London will hear from the people at home that they’ve gone all fancy, even though they themselves probably can’t hear it. This happens subconsciously, and it’s extremely difficult to change your accent on purpose. But we’re always adjusting the way we speak to match the people around us. I’ll spend a day with an American and my accent is sloppy and all over the place, only to crisp back up again when I’m hanging around with a Brit.
None of my native-speaking friends were really able to comment on what I sound like. “Your voice is just your voice,” my friend Chris said. “I’ve known you too long.” But Tom, my brand-new English boyfriend, had a fresher perspective and a pretty damning assessment about the way I sound: “A bit American. But there’s certain twangs in there that makes you think, that’s not American!” I’m still not sure if how much of this was that brutal British sarcasm. Tom said he can’t hear where I’m actually from, though, and to his credit, he’s never asked. “One does not ask, if one has any class at all, where someone is from,” he joked, putting on a mock posh accent. This isn’t actually a rule that people often adhere to, but I have to say: It feels really damn classy when they do, because it signals to me that they care more about what I am saying than how I say it.
Tom’s so-called neutral English accent is actually a result of moving around a lot: “I had a beautiful Northern Irish accent for the first year of school. Then my family moved to the Midlands [in England], and my brothers were bullied for being Irish geezers. So, by the time the school year started [my accent was gone], because I was absorbing an amalgam of accents from TV and from my parents.” Tom swore he didn’t do it on purpose, nor did he consciously stick with that plainer English when he was at school with all the kids who spoke with a Midlands accent. But it was arguably a smart move: Birmingham, the key Midlands accent, was ranked as Britain’s least attractive in a 2014 study, and 80 percent of employers have admitted to accent discrimination.
The fact that kids change their accents when they move suggests that we instinctively understand the importance of fitting in and that appropriate language — whatever that happens to be — is key. Objectively, it’s mentally more taxing to listen to someone with a foreign accent: You have to listen more closely to catch the words underneath the change in tone and stress. The word choices may be a little off, and the speech may be slower since the person is not just thinking of what they want to say but may also be translating on the fly. Studies show we’re less likely to believe something said in a foreign accent, possibly due to the extra work that the brain needs to do to understand: Our brains shift the blame for this effort onto the veracity of the speaker.
The good news is that while we’re easily prone to stereotyping when we hear people speak with foreign accents, we’re also fully capable of overcoming it. A few positive experiences can be enough to get over initial skepticism and start ignoring the accent and focusing on the person. There’s good evidence that suggests people who speak more than one language are better at putting themselves in someone else’s shoes and exhibit better self-awareness and flexibility of thinking. This is in part because of how their brain has to straddle two languages — or two worlds — where not just the words are different but also the implicit meanings, such as how objects are gendered and how common expressions create shared ideas. Bilinguals will often report having a slightly different personality in each language, as we default to the norms of that culture when we speak its tongue.
Things like this make me feel proud to be bilingual — I certainly worked hard enough to achieve it—and yet I’ve been thinking a lot about why I’m so attracted to the idea of erasing all traces of that journey. Even if I manage to adapt the crispest British accent, it wouldn’t be a neutral expression — it would simply mean adapting a set of social signifiers that aren’t actually mine. The best explanation I can come up with is that I’d like to control how and when I tell my stories — I don’t want to feel like I have to immediately share these things about myself to everyone I meet. It’s not that interesting, and it’s all such a long time ago, and so much has happened since then.
Eventually, where you’re from will come up in conversation anyway. If a place is important to someone, they will bring it up, and then it may actually be an interesting story — the day I met Tom, it didn’t take long before I told him, unprompted, as part of some yarn.
Tom said he doesn’t really think about my accent anymore — it’s just my voice. “You can’t control your accent, but you can control how you speak, right?” We can be quiet, or we can let our voices fill up the room. “The things that you have control over are the most attractive,” Tom said. “Certainly, they’re the most interesting things about you.” An accent is just a detail, isn’t it? Soon enough, all that matters are the words that come out of our mouths.