I was about four when I heard a foreign language for the first time. It was on a lazy winter afternoon, during the time of day when adults drowse on the sofa and zestful kids are left on their own. I was playing in the back patio at my grandparent’s house when the neighbor’s granddaughter joined me outside. She uttered a sentence that sounded like a question, but I couldn’t understand a word. I answered by waving my toys, mute. While trying to talk with my hands, I must have looked like a child catapulted to her early baby stage, abruptly dispossessed of her recent ability to articulate herself. I finally sought help, disrupting my parents’ sleep, and discovered that the girl’s mysterious question meant nothing more than “What’s your name?”. But I also discovered that there was a completely different system for expressing one’s thoughts and needs. I never had the chance to tell her my name. When I went back to the patio, she was already gone.
As I grew up, the girl’s language became my second language. I incorporated its names and twists and became fond of it. I soon learnt to appreciate the tangled webs that tie speakers of different languages together and make them become close friends, competitive classmates, or passionate lovers regardless of their mother tongue. I come from a bilingual region in Europe that I’d rather leave unnamed, because names trigger expectations, and expectations lead to misconceptions.
Despite having been in contact with language diversity from such an early age, I was eighteen when I left my hometown and found out that I had an accent. I was, of course, well aware of the many dialects and varieties both in my mother tongue and in my second language. But it had never occurred to me that the way I spoke may sound unnatural to others. “You speak differently when you talk with your friends from the city”, my father once said to me after accidently eavesdropping on a phone call. I felt betrayed by my own room, its walls too thin to protect me from the secrets I still had not confessed to myself. By altering the melody and the words of my mother tongue, I was breaking away with the invisible bonds that linked me with my family and birthplace.
While my sister praised my ability to camouflage my small-town accent, I was troubled by my self-scrutiny. Instead of jumping the gun and speaking freely, I pondered and molded each word in my head before giving tongue to it, juggling words with fleeting thoughts and fears. In my second language, I avoided some sounds that would lift the lid off my not quite standard accent by substituting them for words that would sound more neutral, less inflected by my mother tongue, and felt drawn to expressions that seemed particularly genuine. Language sensitivity is a blessing and a curse: an exhausting way of paying homage to every single syllable, each word, of acknowledging its singularities and multiplicities.
Learning a foreign language became a way of slowly detaching from home: maybe because the hints left by my mother tongue are unfamiliar to most, my accent when speaking a foreign language remains an enigma, and people are rarely able to tell where I come from. Though this was something I was first flattered about, it has proved increasingly annoying, as it has always led to the same question: Where do you come from? Giving an answer torments me, since the name of my home country awakens awkward stereotypes that I refuse to conform to. The clichés go from bad to worse when I mention the name of my mother tongue. Because it is not a world language, it is often rejected as useless or even considered a nuisance that offends international visitors and shatters the dream of a universal language. Even those who normally embrace multilingualism show a certain hesitation. If I endorse my mother tongue, its peculiarities and great literature, I am enquired about my political ideology. These questions exasperate me: What do phrases and verbs have to do with doctrines, ideologies, -isms? Why are speakers of minor languages the only ones that have to account for their political opinions? And even in case I supported certain ideas, why should my beliefs be determined by my mother tongue?
All these questions have led to a new aspiration when speaking a foreign language: not having an accent at all. My endeavor has only been successful in German, my fifth language. “Where do you come from?” is not the immediate question I have to reply to anymore.
Though if truth be told, it’s not that I do not have an accent whatsoever. When I feel tired or nervous, words “crumble in my mouth like moldy fungi”, as Hofmannsthal wrote in this language that has become mine. Moreover, the Austrian and southern German cities I’ve lived in have left a distinct mark, an accent that I paradoxically feel proud of. Some Northerners deem it provincial, but instead of covering it up, as I used to do in my mother tongue, I cultivate it and can’t hide my delight when someone detects it.
After many years of being at war with myself, I have not only realized that it is impossible to not have an accent, but also that there is nothing to be ashamed of. I do not hide my small-town origins anymore, and try not to blush every time I have trouble pronouncing certain sounds in another language. Accents are the most genuine expression of linguistic diversity: they show that languages are not pure, that there is not a single and true way of pronouncing things. They show the false difference we often erect between native and non-native speakers.
Núria Codina Solà received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Tübingen. She also holds a B.A. in German Philology and a M.A. in Literary and Cultural Theory and has taught at the University of Barcelona and in the Institute for European Studies at Chemnitz University of Technology. Her research interests include literary multilingualism, transnational literature and postcolonial theory. She is currently a fellow at Words Without Borders.