After a Lifetime of Code-Switching, What Was My “Real” Accent?

Though I had arrived from a different country, I was lucky that I already spoke the language of my new home. But I was also cognizant, apparently, that I could better assimilate if I talked like those around me did. My new voice lived in a different realm. When the car door swung open at the end of the school day, my English inflections and intonations returned. When I crossed the threshold of the classroom or, eventually, hijacked our phone line with urgent afterschool conversations, it was all American. I began to think of my accent in the way that classmates referred to speaking another language at home. The code-switching had begun. 

Each summer of my childhood, we returned to London. My parents, whose careers in academia allowed them a summer away from campus, used the time to write and reconnect with friends. I spent the months bratty and bitter, longing to escape the damp city of my birth to the dense fug of my adopted hometown. But I was still eager to fit in wherever I was. At camp in the Cornish countryside, as I tried to double down on the English accent that was fast slipping away, fellow campers remarked on how American I sounded. Slang words from the previous summer always seemed to have expired when I worked them into sentences.

On a more profound level, I think I was reacting to a place that felt less and less familiar, attempting to contextualize my notion of “home.” Today, I scold my younger self for complaining about the privilege of a summer in London, but I also know that for children, what is most enticing is whatever your friends are doing. A tan, the trophy of an American summer well-spent, wasn’t attainable in England’s July hailstorms. 

Dr. Shah thinks of accents as personal hallmarks. But as I started college, having two accents became my signature. “She has this whole other British accent,” friends would say after hearing me on the phone with my mother. “Come on, just do it,” they’d implore, begging for my linguistic party trick. I hoped they didn’t think I was faking it. Boys often wanted to hear it. The accent I’d once hid was now a boon.

Because what is an accent really? It’s a declaration of regionality or an affectation, a vehicle for assimilation or even mockery. And for me, it’s a cocoon of self-protection and a way of feeling at home. It’s a vehicle for deflecting the questions that arise from a skin color that’s hard to parse and a last name often considered unusual. It’s an attempt to ignore the inevitable question “where are you from?” (which really means, “what’s your ethnicity?”) before it has even been asked.

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