by Lakshmi Sadhu

If you’re an international student, or from a country where English is not the native language, then you’re probably a bilinguist, or even a trilinguist like me. Knowing more than one language comes in handy more often that you monoglots probably realize. My native language is like a protective cocoon that allows me to safely talk about private affairs with my mother on the phone in a bustling cafe, without anyone understanding it. In its more devious uses, knowing a language other than English allows you to talk about someone right in front of them without them knowing just how harshly you’re judging their decision to wear sunglasses indoors. Fortunately for me, the language I speak is rare enough that I don’t have to worry about someone already knowing it.

So, you're wearing sunglasses indoors... Tell me more about how the sunlight travels through walls.

Unless you have a medical reason that warrants wearing shades inside the mall at 7pm, please, for the sake of humanity, take them off.

 

I digress. While I could dedicate an entire post to the benefits of speaking more than one language, I’m far more interested in a phenomenon relatively unfamiliar to most people. I’m talking about people who are “bi-accented”.

When I first moved to Canada four years ago from the Middle East, I would find myself switching to an alarmingly different accent whenever I spoke to anyone other than my family, or friends from back home in India or Dubai. Now, I’m not merely talking about a subtle shift in the cadence of my speech, of shifting from a non-rhotic style of speaking to a rhotic inflection (having been taught British English in my formative years). I’m taking about a complete 180 degree shift in how I sound when I speak.


I like to think of myself as a linguistic chameleon.

 

The first time I took a long-distance call from across the continent in front of my friends, and fluidly performed “The Switch”, as it’s affectionately known amongst my Asian friends, I was rewarded with hilarious baffled expressions from my companions.

“What the heck just happened?!”, they very eloquently enquired, mouths agape. I didn’t know what to tell them, my tendency to switch from my “Indian” accent to a neutral General American (or Standard Canadian) accent was a powerful reflex I myself didn’t understand back then – I still don’t.

I have also come to appreciate that there are certain quirks about “The Switch”. No matter how hard I try I cannot revert back to my native Indian accent in front of people who don’t already have my native accent. Another weird, albeit amusing, characteristic of “The Switch” is that my native accent tends to come out in full force when I’m particularly angry or exhausted.


Whoops – sorry, guys, my alter-ego came out.

 

Despite not understanding why I instinctively switch accents, I have long made peace with being bi-accented. Just as the languages we speak have the vast and rich expansive of our individual cultures and histories embedded into them, so too do our accents. The words we speak and the way we speak them, all spin a tale of who we are and where we come from.

What about you guys? Are any of you bi-accented as well?