I Have an Accent—Do You?

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

My original GM call centre script from 2004 (why did I keep it??)

I have an accent. Scratch that—I have accents, one in every language I speak. And not a cute regional accent that could prompt someone to say, “oh, I can totally tell you’re from XYZ city!” but a “where the hell are you from?” kind of accent. Hell, I even have a bit of an accent in French—not to mention occasional non-native syntax and a lexicon enriched with loanwords—after 17 years spent outside motherland.

I remember exactly when I first discovered my accent mattered—on a Monday morning of December 2004, when I found myself sitting in front of a computer screen, a headset on and a script on the desk. The staffing agency had enthusiastically (over)sold me as a “bilingual” resource, which was a bit of a stretch considering how much I hated handling phone calls, even personal ones, and how basic my English skills were. “Fake it till you make,” I told myself, even though I suspected I didn’t want to make it big in call centre services but merely make it to the end of the two-month contract.

That winter, GMC was introducing subscription-based in-vehicle communications through the OnStar system. During the promotion, potential buyers visiting participating dealerships across the country were invited to try the service and push the “hot button,” (I know, it sounds dirty…!). We were answering these calls and collecting customer data before transferring them to the “prize line” where they could win a brand-new truck—or more likely, a discount on a purchase.

Green light, English-speaking customers, blue light, French-speaking customers. At first, I was dreading English calls because I found it hard to spell names and addresses, but I was so apologetic that no one seemed to mind. “That’s such a cute accent!” a few customers noted. “You sound so proper!” Unexpectedly, things didn’t go as well in French. I wasn’t yet familiar with French-Canadian idioms and terminology, let alone with common cities and last names, and customers were taking offence. “A-bi-ti-bi-Té-mis-ca-min-gue, câlisse! Now put your supervisor on the line. This is not acceptable. If we press 2 for French, we have to be connected to a French-speaking agent!” And so my English-speaking manager had to swear that I was indeed a francophone and that the call centre wasn’t located halfway across the world but in Ottawa. Oops.

Nowadays, I don’t know what I sound like in English but apparently, I don’t have a typical French accent. English Canadians don’t suspect I’m French because I don’t sound like their Québécois colleagues. And probably because I didn’t learn English in France but picked it up once in Canada, I don’t have the Parisian accent English speakers love to imitate, “like zees.”

Which, by the way, can be an issue as well. The other day, a potential client insisted on explaining an English-to-French translation project over the phone.

“But do you speak French? Like, really?” he asked ten minutes into the conversation.

Of course not. I had nothing planned this weekend so I thought I’d translate documents in a random language pair I don’t master. We have a winner!

“I do,” I assured him. “As a matter of fact, I am French. I grew up in France.”

“Huh,” he snorted doubtfully. “You don’t sound French at all to me.”

It was too late to fake a convincing French accent. I wasn’t assigned the project. On some level, I don’t blame him. I mean, if you’re hiring a translator, you expect someone with the right foreign accent, much like you want your cook to be pleasantly plump, your Chinese restaurant waiter to look Asian and your mistress slightly sexier than your wife. Note to self—insert random “oh, euh…” “Je, euh…” “It is possibleuh” in sentences when dealing with a new customer.

Regardless, having an accent is a bit like having a visible physical difference everyone notices but you because you’re so used to it. It gives away a small part of your identity, draws attention to the fact you’re from somewhere—a somewhere that’s not there.

And sometime, it hurts.

One night, in Santiago, I helped five tourists who didn’t speak a word of Spanish and were completely lost. I asked around for directions on their behalf and the right street was found.

“Where are you from, by the way?” I asked before we parted ways—Canadians, Americans, I couldn’t tell.

“Halifax, Nova Scotia!” one of them replied.

“See Canada?” his friend started to explain. “Well, it’s one of the three maritime provinces, close to—”

“Oh sure, I know,” I said. “I’m from Ottawa.”

“I don’t think you’re from Ottawa with this accent!” he laughed.

I just smiled and shrugged but I was upset. Okay, the dude was drunk. And okay, my Canadian slang was a bit rusty, eh—my brain was on Spanish mode. Still, his comment made me feel self-conscious.

One minute, I thought I was being resourceful, translating directions from Spanish to English and helping tourists in a city I don’t live in. One minute, I thought we were bonding in the silly way fellow citizens can bond abroad over nothing but having the same country leader. One minute, we had something in common.

The next minute, I felt excluded. They were Canadian and clearly, I wasn’t, because I didn’t sound like them. I was an outsider, despite having lived almost half of my life in Canada.

Because it’s not just an accent, it’s not just the way you pronounce words. It’s a part of your identity, a verbal clue revealing your social status, education level, cultural background, travel history. It’s not so much about language proficiency—a British accent in Canada would attract comments as well, for instance—as about an ability to blend in and belong.

I try to be a chameleon everywhere I go. But my accent will always give me away.

Maybe that’s why I’d rather write than speak.

(Thank you Diane, for your inspiring article “Having an accent is not a defect” that prompted me to write this!)


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Hello, so happy you found my post a good jumping off point. 😉 Accents are a fascinating topic, so thank you again for sharing a bit of your experience. I’ve felt self-conscious as well but try my best to just stand tall and own it these days. It’s something that makes us different, and maybe even cool sometimes. Even though other times I feel like that foreigner that doesn’t belong.

    • Thank you again for the inspiration! I like your perspective and I will try to remember the message–“your accent isn’t a defect”, that’s very well said.

  2. Martin Penwald on

    Sans parler d’accent ou de différences de vocabulaire, désolé, mais beaucoup de personnes au Québéc parlent _mal_: la grammaire est torturée pour se calquer sur l’anglais, et, comme en anglais, les gens bouffent les mots. Et je ne parle pas des mots anglais directement introduits sans considération pour le mot français qui existe. J’ai eu affaire, en région, à quelqu’un qui ne savait pas ce qu’était une jante. Dans un magasin de pneus.

    Pour l’accent en anglais, on m’a aussi souvent fait remarquer que j’avais un chouette accent, et souvent les gens devinent que je viens de France. A priori, ça m’a même valu quelques réductions sur mes factures.

    • J’ai pas remarqué que tu avais le gros accent franchouillard non plus. En fait, tu fais aussi partie des gens “caméléons”, je ne dirais pas au premier coup d’oeil que tu es Français.

      Pour le québécois, je trouve qu’il y a de belles trouvailles linguistiques (courriel, par exemple), mais effectivement, à l’oral, je… disons que quand un Québécois me fait la leçon sur l’usage du mot “parking” en France, j’ai du mal, quoi. Je ne comprends pas trop non plus l’usage de mots anglais quand un mot en franâis existe, m’enfin les Français peuvent être assez ridicules là-dessus aussi, surtout dans le marketing et les pubs.

      • Martin Penwald on

        Tout-à-fait. Il y a plein de très bon vocabulaire québécois, et j’aime beaucoup la manière dont ils sacrent.
        Sur Radio-Canada, la plupart des journalistes parlent avec un accent assez peu prononcé, j’imagine qu’il a été modifié par leur parcours. Mais par exemple, dans l’émission “Plus on est de fous, plus on lit” en début d’après-midi, un des intervenants réguliers est le poète Jean-Pierre Daoust : il a un très fort accent québécois, parfois difficile à saisir pour un Français, mais son français est d’excellente qualité, tant au niveau de la grammaire que du vocabulaire. Comme quoi c’est possible de parler correctement le français quelque soit l’accent, et j’ai le sentiment que certains Québécois ne font pas d’efforts pour différencier leur parler de l’anglais. Et je ne parle même pas de l’orthographe qu’on peut voir sur les forums de discussion. C’est absolument horrible. Qu’on fasse des fautes, oui, ça arrive, mais il y a une marge entre ça et de l’écriture phonétique.
        Tiens, par exemple, tu sais ce qu’est un bécyk?

        • Sans l’explication de N, je n’aurais jamais deviné! Et je ne l’avais jamais vu, celui-là 😆

          C’est en te lisant que je réalise à quel point je connais mal le Québec. Je suis plus spécialiste des franco-ontariens, plus nombreux dans la région, et c’est encore une autre mentalité, une autre culture et un autre français. Les franco-ontariens passent du français à l’anglais sans problème en général, et le français parlé est correct, bien qu’entrecoupé d’anglais souvent dans les conversations.

          • Non, en fait! Une fois rapidement de temps en temps pour magasiner à IGA, ils ont des produits français que je ne trouve pas à Ottawa. Mais sinon, c’est une banlieue dortoir, y’a pas grand chose à y faire (sinon voir des amis que je n’ai pas vu depuis des siècles). C’est pas si facile d’accès depuis Ottawa, en fait. En voiture, y’a des énormes bouchons et en bus c’est la merde pour transférer du système Ottawa au système Gatineau.

          • Martin Penwald on

            J’ai toujours trouvé la situation bizarre. Quand tu viens de Toronto et que tu veux aller vers Gatineau, il n’y a pas de contournement évident, on est obligé de passer en ville. C’est assez peu pratique en camion, mais on n’a pas le choix.
            Qu’il n’y ait pas de lien direct entre la 417 et la 5 est très con.

          • Et quand je travaillais dans le centre, je trouvais un peu flippant tous les camions qui passaient sur Kind Edward. Certains étaient carrément trop gros pour le centre ville :-/ Pas de leur faute, hein!

  3. I can totally relate to this, I was born in Milan but my accent has bits from the south of Italy (where my parents were born and raised, I am the only one of their three children to have a slight southern accent, no idea why). So at home I am often asked whether I come from southern Italy, but I reply that I was born and raised in Milan. In southern Italy I am always labeled as the Milanese. When I speak English with a British accent I am asked if I am American, when I was in Canada I spoke with a North American accent and I was always told they couldn’t tell I was Italian because I was not talking loud, using my hands or having a thick accent. Now I am studying French and I have been told I have an English accent sometime.
    Whatever XD

    I guess the good side is that you can pick languages and accents pretty easily, the downside might be that you are not identified with a specific background and thus don’t “have” a real identity in the eyes of other people.
    I know many people having different backgrounds and speaking several languages and I think that’s fascinating

    • You don’t speak loudly waving your hands around? What a disgrace! What did your parents teach you?! 😆 I love the stereotype…

      It’s so funny you have this southern Italian accent! Maybe you’re paying a tribute to your parents’ heritage subconsciously 😉 Are you more comfortable with a British or with an American accent in English? My accent is definitely American, but many of my friends who learned English at school in France have a British/French accent.

      I love your last paragraph: ” the downside might be that you are not identified with a specific background and thus don’t “have” a real identity in the eyes of other people.” I think you perfectly expressed what I didn’t even know I was trying to say!

      • I prefer to use an American accent as not saying the R at all feels a bit weird to me. When I am in England though I prefer to switch to a slight UK accent because some people couldn’t understand me the first time I went there.
        Usually at school in Italy we don’t have mother tongue teachers, so we are tought with an Italian accent. I kept studying English on my own because I thought it was very important and I liked the idea of being able to connect with people from all over the world.
        About the southern accent, I have no idea, but I tend to pick up accents very quickly so I guess I was more influenced by my parents’ accent as it was the very first one I had ever heard. It’s not that thick though, so I guess I might be weird to hear XD

        • I wish I could switch back and forth between a British and American accent! You should be a James Bond girl with those language skills (and possibly the classy Italian style!)

  4. Yes! We all have an accent. When I was teaching languages I always told my students that ‘not having an accent’ was no possible, but to strive to speak with correct grammar and clear pronunciation should be every students goal. To understand and be understood is what a language is all about.

    • I would LOVE to hear you speak! You master so many languages, you’re a true chameleon. Do you have the Argentinian accent (i.e. “CHAma” instead of “llama”) in Spanish?

      • I do! But after spending 5 years in Brazil, I was told that my Argentinian Spanish is now polluted with Brazilian Portuguese on top of the French intonations. What a mess! lol

  5. C’est quelque chose qui m’a toujours embêté. Je n’ai pas vraiment d’accent d’un endroit de France. Et maintenant que je suis ici j’ai forcément un fort accent français. Les anglophones adorent, les Québécois beaucoup moins … ce qui me surprend c’est d’entendre certains de mes collègues, français d’origine mais qui sont ici depuis l’enfance et qui 30 plus tard ont toujours un fort accent français. Est ce que mes filles l’auront donc toute leur vie??

    • Mark a l’accent anglais en français, enfin le peu qu’il parle. Il prononce les mots correctement, par contre.

      On garde toujours un peu de son accent, je trouve, surtout quand on est venu sur le tard (après l’adolescence). Si ça peut te rassurer pour tes filles, Feng (qui a appris l’anglais à 12 ans) n’a AUCUN accent.

  6. I don’t think I have an obvious French accent either, most people tell me that anyways. And for those who are familiar with the Scottish accent, a hint is detectable when I speak English. My Spanish has a hint of French and Canadian in it haha
    I’ve never given it much thought as it’s never been an issue for me, or at least when people have commented negatively on it I’ve let it go?
    And I feel like Jean Claude Van Dam when I speak French sometimes… Franglish for the win?

    • Nope, you don’t have the French accent either, I can confirm. I noted that you don’t have a British accent either (do Scots have a British accent?? Probably not, actually). I couldn’t hear your Scottish accent but I’m not a specialist.

      Franglish for the win, c’est notre lot à toutes ici I think!

      • No they have a very distinct accent, sounds different depending on which coast or city they are from as well 😉
        If you watch “Still game” on Netflix or YouTube (Scottish comedy) it should give you a bit of an idea 😉

          • Yes especially in the UK, you can really pinpoint where people are from (or what class they are from) depending on their accent. In France we have them too for sure but unless you’re from a few specific regions it’s not that different

          • I guess in the US too, after all. In France, I never find people have much of an accent, except maybe in the South.

  7. Love this post. As usual for you it’s so insightful and such a unique perspective. Only you could have written it!

    I will be wondering about accents now all day.

    • 😉 Does your husband have an accent? You rarely talk about his background so I don’t know if he was born in Canada.

  8. When I came back from Mauritius after 4 years there, it took me a while to get my ‘Swiss’ accent back. My sisters made fun of me because I sounded Mauritian ! And it was true. Sometimes, I feel like a chameleon, I can quickly pick up the accent of the person I am talking to.

    I’m not sure what a native speaker of English would say I sound like ; I guess I don’t sound too French, but definitely no native either.

    • I always envy people who can pick up accents easily–they truly blend in! It takes me a while to speak French “like a French” when I go to France as well. I don’t really have an accent but the way I speak is… different.

Leave A Reply