The melting pot. The tossed salad. America, the beautiful. Whatever we call it, most of us have our roots outside it. And all of us have at least come into contact with someone whose roots aren’t generations deep. Perhaps, their roots have just been planted. Perhaps they still hyphenate their nationality: Chinese-American, Italian-America, Nigerian-American, what have you. Perhaps they have an accent. And perhaps that accent has made you smile, or chuckle, or forget what you were talking to them about in the first place, because it’s just so… foreign.
Well, next time…don’t.
I was born in the U.S. to immigrant parents from Romania. My dad has often been likened to Arnold Schwarzenegger for his deep, rustic tone (Intimidation factor = 10), and my mom sounds (and looks) like a Russian princess. I can’t even count how many times they’ve come home from the grocery store or the mall or from a long day at work complaining about some rude American gawking at them as if they were zoo animals, or interrupting them mid-sentence to ask them where they come from.
I grew up speaking both English and Romanian, but while the former is my first language, I consider myself fluent in both. Nevertheless, being schooled formally in the English language but having limited opportunity to practice consistently my second language, I’ve developed my own unique American accent when I speak Romanian.
When I was younger and would travel to Romania with my parents to visit family or when I would speak to relatives and family-friends on the phone, I would often get comments that translate roughly to something like, “Oh, she speaks so well, but what a cute little accent!” When I was younger, I could get away with grammatical errors. When I was younger, I was ignorant to the formalities of address in Latin-based languages. I was exempt from the rules of proper linguistic decorum.
As soon as someone would notice my accent, I was often told that I looked so very American with my blonde hair, blue eyes, and straight, white teeth. This always puzzled me. I am born to two Romanians. I have dark blonde hair and blue eyes from those genetics. I didn’t somehow absorb American physical features through strange environmental osmosis. I would still look like this if I had been born and raised in Romania. So, what’s the big deal? Just another side effect of the accent, I suppose.
The first time I was hit squarely in the face with my own foreignness in the country of my blood, I was 18 years old and traveling to Romania to train with the Romanian Women’s National Soccer Team.
Many of these girls were not only ruthless on the field, but they were experts in the art of banter. And I was their new butt. Every syllable I uttered demanded a mimic, followed always by waves of laughter. Every sentence I attempted, however perfect in grammar and structure, begged for, at the very least, a crooked smile or insinuating glance.
I once lost a bet at practice and was put on the spot to sing the Romanian national anthem alone. Half of my teammates were rolling on the floor before I had finished the second stanza.
At first, I was able to laugh with the girls, to excuse them because I was new, exotic, and (to be brutally honest) popular. But as the weeks passed and I still received the same treatment from many of them, the jokes started to sting.
I found myself reciting my intended comments in my head over and over again before I would dare utter them, in fearful anticipation of the whispers, the giggles, if I made a mistake or if I tripped over a syllable or didn’t roll my R’s perfectly. I found myself afraid… and ashamed… of my accent and my imperfect grasp of the language’s intricacies. I found myself avoiding speech at all costs.
Since that summer, I have returned to Romania once every year, and every time I arrive I begin in the same way. I understand 95% of what is said in Romanian, save for some slang and more technical language on various subjects. Yet, I avoid speaking as much as possible until, by listening only, I’ve re-absorbed some of the sounds and re-learned some of the vocabulary.
Here I am again, at 21 years old, back in Romania visiting family and friends for a few weeks in the summer. My grammar and vocabulary continue to improve every year, but I still make frequent, and often embarrassing mistakes. I still come off as less than perfectly polite because I haven’t yet mastered the rules of formally addressing acquaintances and superiors. The accent, unfortunately, also has proved impossible to purge. If my parents’ experience can tell me anything, I’ll probably never get rid of it entirely, which is a shame. Foreign accents, in my opinion, add character to the English language. In truth, some accents sound beautiful in Romanian as well. For example, I’ve never heard a native French speaker make any language sound anything less than attractive. Regrettably, however, American accents in foreign languages seem to have the effect of making natives assume the speaker is uneducated or, at the very least, amusing.
I’m not sure what it would take to rid myself of this insecurity. I am by no means a shy person. I like to converse. I enjoy contributing to discourse. But more than that, I am not used to being limited by words or by fear of expressing myself. I define myself in large part by my intelligence, my eloquence, and my ease of communication with others, all three of which are (quite literally) lost in translation when one switches to her second language.
However, no matter how hard I try, how diligently I practice, and how intensely I concentrate, I will never lose my accent. I will never be as perfect grammatically and structurally as I am in English. I may never be able to express myself as fully and complexly as I can in my first language. But, what I do hope when I do speak, when I do struggle to explain my thoughts, is that I may no longer be met by laughter; that I may no longer cause my companion to forget my intention because they are too focused on my intonation; that I may be taken seriously and respected completely for the insightfulness and profundity of my ideas and my most valiant efforts to adequately convey them, regardless of any imperfection as they ultimately escape my lips.