Last month, I started a thread on the Facebook Third Culture Kids group which read as follows: “Anyone ever find their accents and manner of speech change very noticeably depending on whom they’re talking to or what their mood is in one language? When I’m mad and arguing, I sound like I’m a Massachusetts kid, when I’m saying “yo’ mama” insults, I apparently sound Texan, when I’m upset and closing off, I sound somewhere between a generic North American with a British influence. It’s almost as if these accents and speech patterns are different people or personalities altogether. Or when I’m speaking Chinese, Japanese, or Tagalog, I find myself gravitating toward a different personality with certain conversation topics being more prevalent speaking in one language over the other (and it’s not due to limited and various vocabulary proficiency).”
Some of the responses I thought were worth highlighting:
“I’m definitely like a chameleon. I tend to start talking like people I’m surrounded with.” – Jeff
“I change my accent without thinking about it. However I have an accent that I use most of the time that enables most people from most nationalities to understand. However, if i talk long enough with someone I start to adapt my accent to make it easier for them to understand. I suppose it is so ingrained that I dont realise I am doing it but know it is happening as I hear myself talk!” – Paul
” I think it is a sort of minor way of switching languages for the situation, plus we have so much that we call upon or suppress of the varied history that is hard-wired in our brains and personalities in any given situation… It kind of seems inevitable to me for a TCK to do so!” – Kathryn
“Don’t you think though that it stems from our own skills in being able to adapt our mannerisms, accent, thinking and feelings to match the situation? Sometimes it must seem to some people that there are a number of people in one person. They see a side to us that they never have seen before when we change to adapt to someone new. Like there are parts of our character which emerge yet with the same core character of who we are. Perhaps all people do so to a certain extent but that TCKs excel at readjustment.” – Paul
“I think it’s also one way we all do what we’ve learned to do our whole lives- BLEND IN LIKE YOU’RE ONE OF THE GROUP!!!!” – Susan
“I believe this is called “linguistic accommodation” and I do it too – the result of a southern birthplace, adopted by a German mother, Massachusetts father, and living in Maryland, France and Germany. I understand from the web that linguistic accommodation is something we instinctively do to make others feel comfortable – once again a great trait that most Third Culture Kids share!” – Brenda
Personally, I think that this kind of characteristic not only helps me in my adaptability to my environment and the people I’m around, but to the stage whenever I’m acting. It’s easier to imagine myself in another setting because where I am at any given moment is always that: somewhere else compared to everywhere else. There’s almost an entire absence of a standard to default to, in that my accent varies so much that I don’t know what part of me is mimicking everyone else until I realize there’s enough distinction in who I am for them to also think they’re mimicking me.
I’ve had this kind of interaction in Manila with the other Third Culture Kids hanging out in Makati’s High Street or Greenbelt on a Friday night. Our passports and ethnicity, as always, are arbitrary, because the moment I say American, Filipino, or British, there are assumptions and associations made about how we think, talk, and act. Yet when a number of us gather, we change accents and manners of speech frequently, sometimes as often as multiple timesin the same evening.
When I’m around the American expats (non-TCKs), I find myself speaking louder and faster. “Screw this guy, screw this place”, I seem to complain more when I’m around Americans. When I’m around my German, English, and other European friends, I find myself choosing my words and analogies more carefully for them to relate to and for them to not be offended. When I talk to the local Filipinos, I speak slower and more playfully, like I’m more relaxed and not taking myself too seriously.
It helps in dealing with the nonsense of other people in life too. Recently, I’ve learned a little trick to putting myself in other people’s shoes. I start out by writing down what they might be thinking. No matter how silly it is, and how much I disagree, I write it down. Then I read it aloud. Then I read it aloud in different accents and manners of speech in the most offensive, stereotypical way possible, from French to Irish to Indian to Australian. Then I begin imitating cartoon characters, from Elmer Fudd to Kermit the Frog, Lucky the leprechaun from Lucky Charms, Popeye, and Iago the parrot. It can be the same sentence every time, but it always feels like another person who has much more to say beyond the literal meaning of the words.
When I change my accent or manner of speech, consciously and unconsciously, I think that’s a way of me connecting to those around me on another level, where I try to bridge worlds apart rather than seeing them as “others”. Although I’m trying to not be too different by matching up to them on a level of tone, accent, and dialogue, ironically, it’s exactly what makes them perceive me to be even weirder.
I do enjoy one thing my old professor once told me how whenever anyone who would approach him and say “You have an accent!”, he would respond “So do you!” Why? Because everyone has an accent. Whenever they say “You have an accent”, it means I have an accent they aren’t used to or aren’t expecting. Especially since I’ve lived in America, people either expect me to have broken English, or sound like I grew up in some part of North America.
My cousin, whom I spent much of my time with around the world and went to high school with, is Chinese Filipino, Canadian, very Americanized, and was educated and worked in Australia. When he visited me a few years ago in Los Angeles, while sober, he had a Toronto accent. After a few pints, he was suddenly “A fakkin’ doctah frum’ Sydney!” A few weeks ago, I went from having a non-accent (by American standards) to suddenly sounding like I’m a Bostonian after a few beers at a party–which is what inspired the thread topic.
Whether it’s a defense mechanism or an adaptability skill, it’s definitely a noticeable trait that most people will notice, TCK or not. It’s also not a sign if insincerity, it’s a sign of sensitivity toward people. So the next time someone tells me I’m insincere for adapting to Filipinos after walking away from a group of Americans, I’ll ask them to tell me how much they understand of what the Filipinos were saying and if they think the Filipinos understood them and the way they contracted their words and spoke too fast.