Speaking in Tongues
By Saniya More
Understanding “I don’t understand you”
The frigid Syracuse wind hit my face, sending my hair flying in a thousand different directions. I shivered, hugging myself to preserve the little body heat I had left. I numbly checked my phone to track my Uber ride. Two minutes away.
When the gray SUV eventually pulled up, I got in with my broadcast camera and recording kit. I started a conversation with the driver and asked him if he was a Syracuse native. He said yes, and then asked me where I was from.
“I can’t figure your voice out,” he said, making eye contact with me through his rear view mirror. “You don’t have an accent, not quite. But you don’t sound American.”
I laughed, because this was something I had heard a lot. I was born in India and raised in Thailand, and also went to an international school my entire life. English is my first language-- it’s the language I think in, it’s the language I am most comfortable with.
But the way I speak English is an insecurity that has lurked in the back of my mind, especially since I made the big move from Bangkok to New York three years ago.
I recently came across an article in the Columbia Journalism Review about an NPR reporter from Brazil whose story never made it to air because her producers had a problem with her accent. In the article, she details the reporting process, the many hours she invested in speaking with sources, writing the story-- all to see it axed in the end.
Her experiences hit home in a deeply personal, almost too relatable way. People can never figure out where I was raised because my accent, for lack of a better term, sounds mixed, international, hybrid. Up to this point, I embraced my voice because it is so reflective of who I am: a citizen of the world.
But as a young professional set to enter the broadcast and digital journalism industry in a few months, I’m apprehensive.
There are certain words I have a hard time pronouncing. Sometimes, I stress the “wrong” syllable. I pronounce some words differently from how Americans do. I struggle to differentiate between words that start with a “v” and a “w” because in most Indian languages, there is no difference between the two sounds. Although they seem like small subtleties, I can’t help wondering: could they cost me a professional opportunity down the road?
I don’t know what the solution to this problem would be. I don’t even know if I should consider this a problem at all. I am fluent in English-- it is my first language after all. But by no means am I fluent in the “American” way of speaking English. I can speak the English I was raised on, and I can do it well.
At one of his recent press conferences, President Donald Trump mocked a Japanese reporter for his accent, saying he couldn’t understand him. Trump interrupted the reporter, not even allowing him to finish his question.
Incidents like these make me question the industry and my place in it. As a society, we need to become more open to different ways of speaking. We come from all corners of the globe, from different backgrounds, education systems, cultural hubs, socio-economic circumstances. All of these aspects factor not just into our way of speaking, but into the very core of who we are.
We’re all guilty of accent-shaming, myself included. Growing up, I would pretentiously correct the way my mother pronounced certain words. I never considered her feelings or accepted that she’d learned the language in a different place than I had. I could understand her, she wasn’t making any grammatical errors. She just didn’t sound like how I wanted her to.
English is a complex language with a bloody, violent history, and the fact that so many can speak it is the result of widespread colonization. English has been taught and used in different ways in all the communities it has asserted power over. Of course people will speak differently depending on where they come from!
I may speak English with an accent. I may pronounce words differently from the “normal” way. I might stress the wrong syllable. But by no means does that make me, or anyone else for that matter, inferior.
If you can hear me, if you can understand me, if you can derive value from my words, the way I speak English should not matter. And if you still remain convinced there is only one correct way to speak English, perhaps you’re the one with the communication problem.
Saniya More, a senior at Newhouse and current Editor-in-Chief of Globalists, speaks five languages and squeals over every dog she meets. She enjoys capturing candid yet poised photos of everyone she meets. If she’s not juggling news wraps, internships and homework in organized chaos, she can be found cooking up a mean Thai dinner.