It’s funny, isn’t it? You spend all this time expanding your vocabulary, perfecting your grammar, immersing yourself in cultures and traditions, and there’s always one thing that will give you away as a foreigner:
I remember being 14 and sitting on the floor of my French best friend’s bedroom. We had a great system: she spoke English to me and I responded in French. It meant that we could have a conversation and practise and neither of us was left out. I’m not sure how we came up with this system, I think we were both so desperate to speak the other’s language that we settled on this as a happy compromise. Anyway, I remember that Camille said to me:
“I hate sounding French, I want an English accent!”
And I asked, in French, “why?”
“Because I don’t want a French accent, I want to sound English when I speak English!”
14 year-old, boy-mad Phillie pondered, and I replied, “but French accents are sexy. English accents aren’t sexy. I want a French accent.”
Camille shrugged, “English accents are sexy in French. Boys think they’re cute.”
And that was settled, English-sounding Phillie and French-sounding Camille continued to babble away in our heavily accented French and English. We didn’t really mind when people chuckled at our accents, because we were teenagers, and if boys liked them, then who cared? We liked boys, BB Brunes and faire du shopping, and accents really affect those things negatively. An accent was just part of who I was, and as I’ve always wanted to live abroad, it was something that I would just learn to live with. Besides, every year I went on that French exchange so les Bretons were pretty damn used to hearing les Cornouailles.
I skipped through university, paying attention to stress, and although my Russian tutors would sometimes scream at me that my лs were too heavy and that I should pay attention to my soft signs, I could make myself understood, so I was satisfied.
When I first met Russians (Russian men, of course) they told me that my accent was sexy, because of course it would be. Russians sound sexy when they speak English, so it’s only fair that it’s the other way round. My Russian was also pretty shocking back then, so I think they were amazed I was putting a sentence together at all, heavy лs and all.
However, this year, it suddenly became apparent, that despite rehearsing how to say words in my head, they were coming through pretty English. And this was funny. As my grammar improved and my vocabulary expanded (mostly through listening to my students chatter away before lessons), I couldn’t understand why people were chuckling at me. Had I accidentally started swearing? Had I insulted someone?
Apparently not, apparently I just sound…funny. I sort of want to scream “FUCK YOU, DO YOU EVEN KNOW HOW HARD YOUR FUCKING LANGUAGE IS? WHAT THE FUCK IS ASPECT? WHAT THE FUCK ARE PREFIXED VERBS OF MOTION? WHY THE FUCK DID YOU GET RID OF ARTICLES? YOU FUCKING FUCKS.” But a foreigner swearing must sound even more hilarious so I decide to keep schtum.
Now, this “let’s laugh at the awful British accent” is a huge blow to my self-confidence. I have always been unapologetically confident conversing in another language, no matter how bad I am at it. So, I stopped speaking Russian for a fair bit. It stagnated. I would say something in Russian as a last resort and then wait for the person in front of me to start laughing at how awful I sounded. I kept my lips zipped and limited my Russian to buying things in shops. I could go very wrong with I think next year I might study for a master’s, but I haven’t decided yet, to be honest I am just seeing where life takes me, but how much does this cost? Yes, I’d like a bag please didn’t allow much room for error. “I’ll speak Russian when I’ve watched more Adventure Time in Russian,” I promised myself.
And then I blocked my bank card.
Now, this is stressful in English. I have many arguments with Cooperative Bank, so much so that I’m pretty sure they have blacklisted my number, and these exchanges have given me a hardened approach to banks. However, Russian customer service really puts British customer service to shame, so I decided to tackle my issue and marched into Sberbank, guns blazing and accent quivering.
I explained my issue to the woman at the desk, who used a lot of words that I hadn’t come across yet. I could kind of understand them, but it took a few goes of her repeating the instructions and me reminding her to go slowly. Turns out that you can’t get a pin code reissued, you have to get a whole card reissued but if I tried tomorrow and I remembered my pin number, I could unblock it that way. I thanked her and apologised for my Russian, to which she replied ничего страшного! – It’s all right! She didn’t laugh at me, she seemed pleased that I had tried. Hmm. Funny that.
I would like to point out that in true sod’s law fashion, my actual pin number hit me like a bullet train when I left the mall. So I decided I’d go to the mall and try it again the next day.
Like a true addict, I was heading to Lush anyway, and if you’ve ever been to Lush (which you probably have: please don’t be that person that says “oh I can’t go in there! It’s just too much; it gives me a headache!” you’re not special, and Lush employees hear it All. The. Fucking. Time.) you’ll know that Lush employees are damn chatty. This was a small Lush, so it was only me in there. Well, that was my worst nightmare considering I had abstained from speaking Russian until further notice.
The only issue is that Liza, the Lush employee in question, knew the tricks of Lush. Ask open questions. Get a conversation going.
“What are you looking for today?” she asked me.
“Oh fuck,” I thought, “the bitch has got me.” I mumbled something about needing stuff for friends, and in true Lush employee style, she led me into a world of bubbles and moisturiser.
There are three things that I will always be able to talk about to anyone and it’s impossible to shut me up, and they are:
- Languages (well mainly grammar, but languages in general makes me sound less pathetic)
- Lush products
Well, Liza really pulled me out of my shell in this one. I told her about which products I preferred, what I had been sent to get by my housemate, what I wanted to use on my hair, about when I worked at Lush, and then I realised that Liza had tricked me into babbling away in my clunky русский язык whilst we cleared the shelves and shoved them in my basket.
“Oh, sorry for my Russian, I’m English, I know it’s really bad,” I spluttered.
“Ничего страшного!” Liza the Legend replied, “it’s cute! I like it. It’s good that you speak Russian.”
Sneaky Liza, I thought to myself, a good sales tactic. Unfortunately for her I can’t buy any more Lush products or I actually might drown in shower jellies. So when we went to pay, I asked her if I could try using my card, and if not, I had cash. Success! My card worked!
“Ah, also, I have a surprise for you!” Lovely Liza announced, “it was nice talking to you today, so here is a free face mask on us! You speak good Russian!”
Now, I do not speak good Russian, but I was not willing to turn down a freebie. Besides, she had phrased it that it’s because I spoke good Russian and not because my skin looks like a pile of shit at the moment, which it does. I thanked Liza profusely, and promised I’d be back to clear their store once more. As a favour. Of course.
It occurred to me after this exchange, that actually, who gives a flying fuck if I have a strong English accent? I don’t judge anyone else for having an accent when they speak English. It shows that you’ve worked hard, that you’re continuing to work hard, that you’re doing something absolutely batty and people should fear you, because you’re clearly not to be messed with if you have decided that one language just isn’t enough for you and the rest of the world need to hear your inane thoughts as well.
So, from now on, I will continue watching Russian Adventure Time, because it’s boss as fuck and excellent listening comprehension practise, but I’m not going to wait until my accent is flawless to start conversing. I will always sound English and I should own that. After all, it gets me free face masks.