At the Foot of the Tower of Babel
Apparently, there are people out there who specialize in assisting people to change their God-given accents to any accent of their choice – preferably American or British (in this case)…because I had never heard of something as ridiculous as this, when my cousin announced that he was going for a trial class in order to determine whether it was something he could include in his already busy life…I asked to tag along. Apparently, it was one of those a trial will convince you classes perhaps to justify the astronomical amount of money a lady called Gertrude would charge you for these special classes. Gertrude’s biography indicated that she had arrived in the UK in her teens from Eastern Europe and had had no prior knowledge of English, was self-taught and spoke English without a hint of an accent. My question as to whose determination an English accent is anyway since English is a universally spoken language was left unanswered by my cousin who threatened not to let me come if I insisted on being so cynical. The only reason I did not persist further was because I really wanted to attend Gertrude’s trial classes and see what exactly she was on about.
We arrived in a poorly-lit section of Central London at the scheduled time, thinking we were the first to arrive at the dreary-looking building, we spent almost five minutes chatting in front of what we thought was the front door when my cousin spotted a sign that indicated that people who were coming to the building for the English Accent classes should go round the corner and wait to be let in. And it was round that corner that we saw them. For a moment, I was certain that we had stumbled upon some multi-cultural gathering – people of almost every nation and color I could imagine were there. Some of them speaking in their native languages other speaking English and I caught a few snatches of French and Portuguese here and there. I eavesdropped on a conversation where an Asian gentleman was animatedly telling a group of about four other potential ‘accent-changing seekers’ that one of his colleagues from work had recommended Gertrude’s classes after taking a couple and how it was amazing how his accent had been transformed and he had recently been promoted. I had to summon all the willpower in me to prevent me from saying that any job that requires you to change your accent in order to get a promotion was not worth it all the time. All the while the amateur lawyer in me was trying to think of some Labor Law that made it illegal. As I glanced over in my cousin’s direction, he gave me a glare that stopped my tongue, I did not need to be told that this was not the forum to discuss such issues. More than anything, I was curious to perceive the accents and was content to stand and listen while everyone chatted away. There was a lady who I think may have been from the Carribean whose voice reminded me of a nightingale’s melody. It grieved me so badly that she would want to even try to change that accent that I began to dream up a scheme to send her an anonymous note begging her to drop the classes and keep her accent as is but was interrupted by an announcement calling on all gathered to enter.
Gertrude was a lot shorter than I had pictured her. The frames of her glasses made her look a lot like the Headmistress in the British series – Mind Your Language – which I thought was a bit serendipitous but my cousin whispered to me that it was all in my mind and they looked nothing alike. We chose seats at the back close to the exit. It was my idea since I was sure that we would probably be thrown out if I started to laugh out loud and also since my cousin was stuck between taking the classes and taking his chances with his (Nigerian) accent.
Gertrude gave the class a nice little empowerment blurb using herself as an example and assuring them that they could do it. All the while I kept saying to myself that if you really want to empower this people, you should let them know that their accents are fine just the way they were and anyone who says otherwise needed to open their mind up a bit.
I think I may have fallen asleep somewhere between the speech and when the class was asking questions. I was jolted out of a nap by the chorus of voices and gathered that the trial lessons had begun and it consisted of the class repeating short sentences dictated by Gertrude. Sentences like the Lion in Winter with the R at the end of the last word in the sentence rolled over the tongue like errrrr. Another class favorite was My House in Umbria – which gave the class a lot of problems because more than half of them would pronounce Umbria as Umbrella.
In the end, my cousin decided against taking the classes, since he could not afford them. Apparently there were additional fees not included in the informative material that had been mailed to him. Adding up all the costs made it thankfully out of his reach.
The Biblical account of how the languages of the world came into being takes us to the Tower of Babel. I imagine myself as one of those people who was standing at the foot of the tower on that fateful day when all those languages were created. I hesitate to believe that when the dissenting individuals descended they were all speaking different languages with one unique accent.
It still leads me to wonder what exactly defines your accent – I have had the good fortune of meeting a number of people from different cultural backgrounds some speaking English with ease others with difficulty but still making do. A google search informs me that it is impossible to put a number on how many languages exist in our world. The same search also lets me know that when it comes to the highest number of people speaking a language in the world there are more people speaking Spanish and Chinese than there are speaking English.
I think a lot of people confuse elocution and accent – elocution can be the way of speaking while accent is more of the distinct way of speaking. Whichever way you decide to look at it though, I think it is a shame that there are establishments which are training people to talk a different way than they should and people are actually patronizing them. I mean, if we all talked the same, what a colorful world we would be missing. Whatever happened to embracing the differences in ourselves. As for my cousin, he found a job with a multinational company, his boss is from a place called Gujarat in India
Hopefully it is not too late to send my Happy New Year wishes to all and sundry. May you find peace and happiness this year and always.