May 20, 2009

Multiple personalities in a foreign language

When we learn a foreign language, we may have an accent bearing light traces or strong semblances of our native tongue or we may be able to pick up on out instructor’s accent or that of a native speaker.

What happens when we have studied with instructors with various national accents or have “lived” a particular language in various countries where it is spoken? What kind of multiple personality disorder can we have when we open our mouths?

In January 2000, I returned from Argentina on crutches and with a cast on my left leg, with no desire to retain my recently acquired Argentine accent. After spending a year in the country, I wanted no traces of the Argentine “sh” sound for the double “ll” and “y” letters in Spanish. (Most Spanish speakers have a light “yuh” sounds for these letters.) Since most Spanish speaking countries did not use or recognize the “vos” second person singular pronoun typically used in Argentina, Uruguay, and some other Latin American countries, I wanted it to disappear from my Spanish as well. (Most countries use the word “tu” in the second person singular. The “vos” is conjugated differently than “tu” and sounds strange to those who are not used to it.) I didn’t make a concerted effort to have the accent go away, but the more I spoke in Spanish with Mexicans and Spaniards, the less my argentinismos came out. My Spanish language vacillated between Mexican and European Spanish, with occasional Caribbean rhythms giving guest appearances. I think the latter came from my love of salsa music!

I don’t know why my Argentine accent has come back to me now. It’s not a complete Argentine accent, but it’s noticeable. I’ve also been craving some Argentine foods and even recreating the smells of Argentine barbecue in my mind. I am traveling in my mind and my vocal chords are following my journeys. But I have no desire to revisit the country now.

For those of you who have lived in different countries that speak the same language, I wonder if you too have heard your accent change unexpectedly to that of a country where you haven’t lived in years.

-- Susanna Zaraysky is a guest blogger on Leximo. She will publish her book, Language is Music, in June 2009. The book has over 70 tips on how to learn foreign languages easily using music, TV, radio, film and other free and low cost resources. She speaks seven languages (Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Serbo-Croatian, and English.) Her mission is for people to become confident communicators in foreign languages.

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