Pakistani-born writer Omar Akhtar reflects on how his Pakistani accent has become Americanized from living in the US.
Nothing wrong with an American accent on its own. But for someone like me, who had grown up in Pakistan, there were all sorts of connotations. I was a sellout. I must be ashamed of my own culture and identity. I must think I’m better than everyone else. I’m a burger … Back home, there was a special kind of loathing reserved for kids who had American accents. British accents were acceptable since all our post-colonial teachers held it as a gold standard and we still related to that culture. But if you had an American accent, it conjured up the most irrational rage in the people around you.
These are great reminders as to how we make cultural judgments based on how a speaker sounds, particularly if they used to sound like us and don’t anymore. This is a common experience for acting students who go home to see their families after they begin training in a ‘standard’ stage accent such as Received Pronunciation or General American.
Akhtar goes on to question the change in his accent:
I justified it to myself saying that I spoke in an American accent to Americans while maintaining my native accent when speaking to friends or family from home. But isn’t that sort of phony as well?
No, it’s not phony. It’s code-switching and we do this all the time depending on the status of the person we’re speaking with the relationship between us. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tone and vocabulary, but it can also shift into accent/dialectical changes as well.
The rest of Akhtar’s article discusses why many of us shift our accents to succeed in things like getting jobs and improving our credibility. It’s well worth a read and is a good reminder that it is the listener who has the power to make judgments about a person based on how they sound, whether they are consciously doing it or not. As Patsy Rodenburg says, “To the ears of others we are what we speak.”