Foreign Accents

My kids heard my accent in different ways.

When my oldest son Mike was in kindergarten, he came home upset from school one day. He said that a schoolmate had teased him over the fact that his mother had an accent. Mike didn’t know what the kid was talking about. “You don’t have an accent!” Mike said to me.

Well, actually I do.

My parents, sister and I came to the US when I was nearly fourteen years old, and I did not speak much English at the time. I learned quickly, and in a year or so I was almost fluent. But the accent, and I like to believe that it is slight after all these years, has lingered on.

In high school and college, when I yearned so badly to belong, I would have given anything to be rid of that accent. It made me sound different, foreign, separate.

Now, I hardly think about it, except when my family laughs at an improperly enunciated word or expression.

My kids heard my accent in different ways. To Mike and Sam, it was so much a part of my personality that they couldn’t even hear it. Nena, who is extremely musical and sensitive to sounds of all kinds, picked up that Slavic accent from the earliest childhood and could imitate it mercilessly when she became a teenager. She and my niece, Nicole, could go on for hours speaking like recent Serbian (or Russian) immigrants.

Mike, in the meantime, has heard many accents. He has traveled the world and been exposed to languages in Europe, Asia and South America. He has studied a number of languages himself: Serbian, Russian, French, Spanish, Thai.

A few months ago I went to a conference in New York City. Mike and his girlfriend Karen came down from Boston to spend the weekend with me and we got together with Karen’s old high school friend Hillary. This was the first time Hillary and I had met.

As the four of us sat in a tiny Thai restaurant, ate delicacies that Karen had taken great pains to select for us all, and slowly sipped wine, Mike turned to Hillary and asked: “Hillary, does my mom have an accent?”

Poor Hillary looked at him in confusion and answered: “Is this a trick question?”

Mike looked sheepish and admitted that he always wondered what people heard when his mom spoke.

“Your mom has a very slight accent,” Hillary said kindly.

I leaned over and gave my son a big hug. Serbian accent was written all over it.

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