I once had an English boyfriend tell me if we had children he would send them to elocution lessons.
“So they don’t speak like their mother” he helpfully offered.
It appeared he had taken a dislike to my thick Aussie accent and believed it to be indicative of a level of informality not conducive to a full and successful life. He was soon relieved of the burden of having to listen to it further.
My accent has calmed down a bit since I moved from Australia to New Zealand and now I say “fush and chups” with the best of them. But my twang is still there and I still get the odd bit of grief for it. I was once laughed at in a bar because of the way I ordered a glass of wine – apparently there’s more than one way to say shiraz – but it’s water off this Sheila’s back.
I sometimes wonder what Mr English Accent* would think of the way my son speaks. Charlie is now three and although born in New Zealand, he’s spent half of his life in Northern Ireland. His daddy has the thickest Northern Irish accent I’ve ever heard. Some people swear Charlie has an Irish accent, others think he sounds like WWE wrestler playing a Russian bad guy.
But I don’t hear his accent. I only hear the excitement in his voice when he sees a butterfly in the garden or a helicopter in the sky, the tremble when he knows his little twin baby brothers are upset, the lispy whisper when he is sleepy and asks for one more bedtime story.
Nor do I hear the thick accent of the Indian couple who own and work (bloody hard may I add) in my neighbourhood’s local corner store. I only hear the tiredness in the voices from yet another 15-hour shift, the patience when they tell their boy to go back into the store room and finish his homework while mum and dad serve someone.
I don’t hear the Koren accent of a teacher at our boys’ daycare. She was given a job there when no one else would employ her because of they way she spoke. To say all the children love her is an understatement. She is kind and gentle and patient with them. When I close my eyes all I can hear her saying to my sons it it’s naptime now and mummy and daddy will be back soon so why don’t they have a lie down and let me stay with you until you fall asleep.
I don’t hear the accents of the Somalian refugees at the local markets, I only taste the delicious traditional food the cook up and sell at night markets. You’ve not lived until you try chicken spaghetti, Somalian-style.
They stand alongside the men and women from Afghanistan and Syria and Myanmar who make and sell the most exquisite needlepoint embroidery you will ever see, jewelry, hand-stitched bags and shawls. Some can’t speak much English at all, but I hear their sons’ and daughters’ blossoming little Kiwi voices when they act as translator for me.
I do hear the deep and proud Maori accents of those who live and work alongside me in the beautiful country. I will never be able to pronounce Te Reo Maori like they can, but I try my hardest and my heart is full of joy knowing my sons are being raised in country that respects its first peoples’ language so much. One day I was driving Charlie to the shops and a bus went past. “Kia ora (hello) bus,” he said without thinking. I almost cried.
And I do hear my own accent, my thick, twangy Aussie-turned Kiwi-ish accent.
I hear it when I am trying to order a Vietnamese dish in a restaurant and completely bugger up my order or when I call out hello to the gorgeous Pakeha (white) grandmothers waiting for the bus and when I buy bundles of bok choy at the Asian grocers and ask how much I owe them.
I hear it when I am telling my boys that I love them, or that no, I won’t be putting on a tractor DVD for the millionth time. I hear it when I sing John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads to the twins to make them smile or when I Charlie if he needs a cuddle to make his scraped knee feel better.
But you know what? I don’t care about my accent or anyone elses any more than I care about what women wear or don’t wear on their heads or what tattoos you do or don’t sport or what your faith is or isn’t or what country you were born in or what passport you hold.
Judge people on what they say, not how they say it.
*He’s from Peterborough so you can judge his accent for yourself.