Saturday, November 07, 2009

Losing My Accent

My family moved from New York (Staten Island) to Florida when I was in the 9th grade. Teenage adjustment aside, it was plain to me right away that I didn't fit. On the first day of school each of my teachers asked me to share a little bit about myself because they knew that I was "new." By the end of the day I vowed not to open my mouth again until I could talk more like my peers - my New York accent was not well received. The snickers and giggles that welcomed me to a Florida high school motivated me to find a way to lose my accent - and fast!


How do you say these words?

When I arrived to Florida from New York, this is how I said them:

Are -ange

By the end of 9th grade I successfully rid myself of r-less words and Stallone-like pronunciations. However, when I went back to New York the following summer to visit my cousins they made fun of what they heard as a "Southern" accent. I made the mistake of saying "ya'all."

I no longer fit in New York. I wondered, and continue to wonder to this day, where do I really fit?

Adjustment to a new culture isn't easy. Without some strategies and resilient factors to strengthen you, the transition may not be a successful one.

How much of who we are do we relinquish when we step into a new culture? What do you hold onto and what do you lose? How important is it to be able to let go of a part of yourself in order to fit in? Or should we hold onto our identities even if it is to our detriment?

Our children face this with each school transition. They are, in fact, stepping into a new culture when they start school in kindergarten, when they move to middle school, when they move to high school, and later if they move to college.

We use what is called a "constant comparison" to find out who we are and where we belong. We look to the right and look to the left to see who we are "not" first. Who we are "not" may become the quest in some cases. For example, I knew I did not belong because when I looked to the right and looked to the left and listened, I did not sound like everyone else. In that case, I strongly desired to become what I was not.

Becoming what you are not isn't always a good thing. As parents we fear our children becoming something "alien" to what our family culture has prescribed. We cringe when they begin to dress differently, speak differently or act differently. It scares us. We're afraid they've lost who they were WITH us.

It took a long time to convince my family in New York that I was still the Vicki they knew even though I no longer sounded like her. In reality, it was up to me to show them that I was still the same person; it was not up to them to accept me.

I find, however, that when I am with my family in New York, my accent returns. When I'm passionate about something, my accent slips in. When I speak too quickly, my accent reveals itself. I speak the way I do in order to be successful where I am. The ability to transition from one culture to another is a positive coping strategy. Our children need to learn how to transition as well.

The key is to learn how to lose your accent without losing who you are.

Our children are in a constant state of transition. Support them as they learn how to be successful in their new culture. Maintain a positive relationship and bond, show them ways to transition, remind them that who they are is a wonderful thing, and remember that when they come home they are still who they were - they just may talk a little different!