I Swear I'm Not Pulling a Madonna — My Accent Has Just Mutated Since I Moved Abroad

I don't notice how my speaking has changed until I'm around exclusively Americans.
Publish date:
December 3, 2016
living abroad, japan, accents, Americanisms, Hong Kong

Last spring, as my friend Dannie and I were trudging up the slopes of Central in Hong Kong to get to a happy hour, our conversation turned to the way we speak. Or rather, the way how we speak has changed.

"I don't mean to do it, and I feel kind of douchey, but I feel like my accent has changed in the years since I've lived on the US mainland. I mean, I'm still obviously American but, there's a mix of something else in there."

"Yup," Dannie said. "Me too. For me it's that 'uptick' at the ends of phrases that's very Hong Kong. It's like a cross between a Chinese and British accent. We [Americans living in Hong Kong] all pick it up a little bit."

"Huh, I think you're right," I said as it sort of clicked into place. "I've noticed the rhythm and sound of my speech change – but it's not unfamiliar. I might sound more like the Hong Kongers in my family recently, if only to me."

"People back home think I'm being pretentious, but I swear I don't even know I'm doing it! I've just lived outside of the US for so long [as an adult, Dannie's lived abroad more than she's lived stateside] that my accent is bound to change a little."

And Dannie was, and is, right. Granted I haven't lived in Asia for as long as she has, but even having been here for only about three years, and being in my 30s, I've been surprised by the slight deviations from a "normal" American speech that have started coming out of my mouth recently.

I feel like I'm going through a period of really examining the sound of my own voice. (I also live in the middle of a Bob Ross painting – happy little trees, happy little river, happy little farm lands – so sometimes the sound of my own voice is the only company I have.)

What's funny is that at first I'd hear that "uptick" as Dannie described, or a vaguely British "lilt" in other Americans abroad and think, "Geez Louise, that can't be real." But then over time it stopped sounding odd to me and I started catching myself doing it too; completely by accident. Now and then I actually corrected myself back to my distinctly American Louise, "Pacific Northwest with a Texas Twist and a Side of St. Louis" way of speaking.

Maybe it's not even really an accent change, so much as a change to the musicality of my speech.

My friend Joy (who is becoming a regular character in my posts) posted this article on her Facebook about how Lindsay Lohan claimed that her study of multiple languages was changing her American accent. The article doesn't really confirm her claim, but it doesn't entirely call bullshit on it either.

Linguist James Flege found that how humans form specific sounds in their mouths when speaking different languages fluently, does affect their mother tongue. "...learning a new language does, even if in a very subtle way, have an effect on the way you speak your native language."

I'm entirely overly simplifying this, so please do go read the article. If you're a something of a linguistics nerd like me, you'll love it.

However, "specialist in sociolinguists and phonetic and phonological variation at Georgetown", Jennifer Nycz, said in regard to Lindsay Lohan and Flege's findings, "These are highly experienced bilingual speakers he was looking at. Whether it applies to Lindsay Lohan taking a language class? …Possibly?"

Yet, Nycz also says that a "natural shift" in speech can occur in reaction to one's surroundings. Accent acquisition is not a clear science, it seems. (Again, I'm over simplifying Nycz's findings.)

Also, I just have to note that I'm using "accent" rather willy-nilly – and it's driving the nerd in me nuts. So, to clarify: "Accent refers simply to the pronunciation of words; dialect can include changes in vocabulary or sentence structure. Changing 'about' to 'aboot' is accent, but adding 'eh?' to the ends of sentences is dialect."

During my time in Japan, Hong Kong, and even Hawai‘i, I think both my accent and dialect have been affected.

When living in a foreign culture, it's nearly impossible not to adopt certain words and phrases so you can meet people on their "linguistic turf"; to attempt to be a part of things, not always on the outside. There's being understood and there's connecting. Sometimes, I've found, the quickest way to connect to someone is to use words and dialect markers from the local culture.

When I was in Honolulu, I very quickly added "yeah?" to the ends of phrases, requesting confirmation. "You going to Long's, yeah?" It was a local way of relating, and it using it became second nature. It's still a part of how I talk to people now.

As Joy said, when I commented on her Facebook post about my accent/dialect experiences, "We're all just trying to belong – one place or another."

The same goes for the sound of how people talk. During my time in Hong Kong I tried really hard to improve my Cantonese. After over a year of speaking to locals and trying to be understood, in both English and Cantonese, I noticed that my English slightly mimicked the sound of both Cantonese and Cantonese-accented English. Again, it was not conscious, it was not an attempt to sound like someone I'm not (as is sometimes the accusation).

I just think that when you're trying to bridge a cultural or language gap between yourself and another person, you'll reach for anything that can build that bridge. Taking on the music of a culture's speech can be one of those things.

And really, I don't notice how my speaking has changed until I'm around exclusively Americans. This last trip I took to Los Angeles and Phoenix a few weeks ago really made it clear. Candidly, I was a little self-conscious.

Why? Because, as Dannie put it, "I make an effort to turn off the uptick when I go home cause I don't want people to think I'm a dick."

Sure, lots of Americans who've lived abroad can get a little weird, like they're putting on airs, when they go back home. We've all met THAT GUY (or gal) who comes back from a study abroad in London and won't pronounce the letter "r" anymore; the TV is the "telly" and he compliments you on your "jumper". Chill out, Peter, you lived in Kent for three months; you lived in Texas for 21 years.

But for lots of us who've been away for longer, who've built lives abroad, the change is deeper but more subtle.

Lots of us have also heard our friends back home in the US say some version of, "You live in a flat? Oh come on! Cut it out, you're American!"

I'm not going to lie, I do sort of understand when American friends say stuff like that. It's got to sound so bizarre and stilted. But from the other side of things, sometimes letting something like "flat" slip out is completely unconscious. Such a little word is a reflection of another culture we've integrated into ourselves.

Plus sometimes "flat" is just easier to blurt out than "apartment." It's certainly quicker to type.

Look, I'd wager to say that any American living abroad will always be distinctly American. Whether we go the way of the Lohan or Madonna with our accents, Americans, in my opinion, just have a way about them that an accent can't hide. And there's nothing wrong with that. If nothing else, the past few years have taught me to embrace my Americanness, not conceal it.

So have any of you experienced a change in accent or dialect while living away from your home country? Have you noticed it in others? What sort of shifts in speech (accent, dialect) have you noticed? What is your reaction to any of the above?

I'm really curious. Until it happened to me, I didn't think such shifts in speech were possible at my advanced age (kidding, contrary to what the local YOUTHS think, my insides haven't turned to dust). Did you?