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I Have an Accent—Do You?

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!)

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