Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A British Accent, Eh?

Before I starting blogging I took a significant self-improvement venture to improve my speech. It should be documented on the internet somewhere, but unfortunately I can't find it. It was an impediment I struggled with for years due to my bad hearing, one that gave me much grief, that I'm proud of having cured after a lifetime of having it.

As noted in my post about hearing-impairment misconceptions, my impairment lies on the high end of the pitch spectrum, where I'm deaf to many high pitches still within human hearing range and have a hard time detecting or distinguishing sounds on the edge of my capacities. This gave rise to my speech impediment, as the phonetic sounds /th/ and /s/, voiced and unvoiced, are impossible for me to distinguish between due to them being so high pitched. I never confuse words within sentences due to the context of meaning, but if you said an isolated word like "think" I might believe you said "sink," and in pronunciation I could mangle a word such as "scissors" into "thissors." The only way I can distinguish the sounds is by the tongue movement used to speak them; otherwise I hear no difference between them. The adults taking care of me didn't catch this, so I've spent the majority of my life mispronouncing words left and right because of this, never knowing.

It's given me a lot of difficulty. Kids used to bully me severely probably because of this, frequently calling me names like "retard," and I think this impediment is actually what led to me being put in special education as a child, as the adults probably thought my speech was evidence of mental disability. After all the hardship it caused me, I unfortunately didn't learn there was something "off" about my speaking until a trusted friend pointed it out to me, though his unsophisticated insight didn't reveal the true nature of the problem. I concluded that I must somehow have a "deaf accent," that accent known of deaf or nearly deaf people who know spoken language, which comes off as very throaty and deep. To remedy it I took to maintaining a false British accent for years in the hopes that it would cover it up, though my mistaken conclusion meant I was still mispronouncing words in the same fashion. It might have improved my speaking aesthetics, nonetheless.

I was still disturbed by questions as to "where" I was from, however, as even after I lightened and tried to eliminate my British accent habit years later, some people still wondered whether I was from a foreign country, which I assume they asked because they thought I didn't have a firm grasp of English. A few more years later I actually got some speech therapy, which is when I finally learned that I was mixing sounds I either couldn't hear or distinguish, and finally got to correcting the problem at its root. I've readjusted my habits and am able to nearly flawlessly distinguish the sounds since I'm so accustomed to how different the tongue placement feels for different words.Finally, the impediment is vanquished!

Or so I thought. To my shock, it appears I may still have some leftover work to do. Since moving to Texas some people have taken to ask me where I'm from, and I assumed they were only asking because I don't have a Texan accent. Recently at work, however, someone asked me where I was from, because it sounded like I had a British accent.


I thought I had abandoned it years ago, but I guess that since I maintained it consciously for a sufficient number of years, about two or three, it has melded itself into my habits in a way that I can't really sense that I'm doing it. I detect nothing characteristic of it even when I listen to my voice on my audio recorder, which I do on a regular basis. But, introspecting on how it physically felt in my throat to speak such a way, I can tell now that some traces of it are still there, and that I tend to exaggerate it when trying to speak in a gentle tone. Most difficultly, I cannot conceive of speaking any other way: To my own perception, I'm speaking in an entirely American accent, so it's hard to me to notice in what way I'm still maintaining a British accent, except when I emphasize certain pitches.

The dominant question on my mind, contrary to what you might expect, is whether I should actually undertake to change my accent or leave it as it is. On one hand, I have no known English heritage and grew up around American-accented people, so the implication could be dishonest. On the other, I don't actually intend to speak this way on purpose, so it might still be honest since I'm not intentionally speaking this way. It's hard to tell which side is more valid.

My biggest hesitancy in undertaking a self-improvement endeavor is that a significant portion of the people I meet do appear to find my voice aesthetically pleasing, and after many years of being made fun of for an unknown impediment and thinking that my speaking was unattractive I very much enjoy that attribute and am attached to it. I wouldn't want to give it up if it means decreasing the aesthetic value of my speech, which while it may not be a necessary value, it's still a value to me regardless as part of my conception of beauty. If I could maintain the same or an increased level of aesthetic beauty in my speaking I'd be gung-oh, but I guess any self-improvement undertaking would have to be a joint venture since I don't interpret my voice the same way fully-hearing people do.

At the very least, I'm thinking about doing some practice with speaking clearly and at an even pace for the sake of practicality, and improving my yelling. That last one may sound weird, but I've noticed that when I yell I'm often at a loss as to how to place my voice properly and probably end up distorting it somewhat in the process of magnifying it. I frequently need to yell at my workplace in order to announce to the waitresses that silverware and cups are ready to be sorted, so I get embarrassed with how off-track from my normal speaking my yelling must be. 

On the accent issue I'm not sure what to do, so what do you think?


  1. People sometimes mistake my accent for British. My father gets that a lot, too, even though our family hasn't been British since America was British. I think it's a function of speaking clearly and precisely. Americans slur everything, so if you don't, it sounds like you have a non-American accent and everyone's first thought is always British. Maybe that's the cause for you. It sounds like you probably make an effort to pronounce words more clearly than a typical American would.

    I certainly wouldn't give another thought to any possible dishonesty. If you like how you speak, just speak that way. Even if you deliberately adopt a British accent, you aren't trying to trick anyone, and if someone asks if you are British, just say that you aren't. But then if it's important to you not to sound British, I guess you have some more work ahead of you!

  2. I never thought of it that way. In that case, I want to keep my "accent," but improve my yelling.

  3. My daughter also has a congenital hearing impairment, and hers is in the high and mid-speech range. We did not uncover the problem until she was beginning high school because she had taught herself to read lips. She, too, mishears certain sounds, and the results range from comic to frustrating for her and the people speaking to her. She, too, often sounds like she has a foreign (slightly British) accent because she speaks more clearly, and pronounces all the phonemes in her words carefully. And she wishes everyone would do so in order to avoid misunderstandings.

    Most people don't think anything of it, but there are a few people who think (and say) that she is "affected." She really doesn't care, as it works for her in order to make herself better understood, which is the goal of speaking after all! Those people who are more interesting in critiquing how she sounds than what she says are not important to her, and she quickly "unfriends" them.

    MY advice (that you didn't really ask for): Let people think whatever they want to think. You go ahead and do what works best to make yourself understood. If they ask, of course you will say that you are not from Britian, but no other explanation is required unless you choose to give it. And that depends on how close a friendship you have with the inquirer.


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