Foreign Accents

February 24, 2011

Mike and his mother

Mike and his mother

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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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

lionel October 11, 2011 at 5:49 am

The ugliest in English is the French accent. REALLY ugly.
Unfortunately when I speak English, while people hear that I have somewhat a foreign accent, they can’t trace it to French-thanks God!


Liliana October 11, 2011 at 6:50 am

Oh Lionel,
every accent has its charms. I personally think that the French accent brings a sense of deep mystery to the English language. Best to you.


Gordana Curgus May 20, 2011 at 9:37 am

One more great story from Liliana :)))
I have thick accent myself since I’m from Sarajevo.
It haven’t bothered me at all. That could be since I came to US when I was 34, and didn’t speak the word of English at the time. All my concerns were how to start speaking and understanding the language, and there was no time to think about accent. The interesting thing is that I can’t hear my accent, in my ears, and in my head :)) I do sound perfectly “normal”, hahaha……..


Liliana May 20, 2011 at 9:58 am

now that I am older (maybe not wiser, but certainly less insecure) I am very comfortable with my accent.

And, I am sure that you sound wonderful – just reading your words I can hear the sound of Sarajevo!

Hugs to you!


A Little Bird April 18, 2011 at 8:51 am

This is a great uplifting article and conversation here… and yes we ALL have accents. We should be thankful for the sense of diversity it dictates.

Canadians too have (nation wide) regional twangs to their words and phrases and if as a speaker you haven’t been told so – you don’t get out much.

My girl has a wonderful Serbian accent when speaking English. It’s soothing, subdued, & sexy, and I could listen to it for hours even if she’s upset about something.
So now that I’m thinking about it I just have to give her a call! ^_^
Bye. ^_^


Liliana April 18, 2011 at 8:59 am

I wish I knew Serbian accents were considered so attractive when I was young – I think I would have felt a lot more self confident.

Now that I am older, I know one thing – accents (and all kinds of diversity) are wonderful!
Best to you.


Ana March 2, 2011 at 9:53 am

OH MY GOSH, this is EXACTLY the same conversation I have had with people my whole life. I literally cannot hear my mother’s accent; I’m trying and the best I can do is admit that she speaks a little differently or emphasizes different parts of words than most Americans. I can definitely hear my dad’s though his is pretty pronounced; and my brother and I often joke with him about his – with my mother it is more teasing her about how she pronounces certain words (like “skwir-rel” instead of “skwirl” for squirrel).

Maybe it has something to do with it being the maternal voice as well. I’m not sure. But it’s always exactly the same thing, I have asked my close friends who have met my mother, “Ok, does my mom have an accent?” and they react the same way, their looks give me an “Are you serious?” questioning and then they step carefully around informing me that yes, she does indeed. “A slight accent, very slight”. I never would have minded it if I thought that she did, it’s just funny that I can’t pick it up either. I wonder if my brother notices actually; I’m not sure.

=) That made my day. Thanks.


Liliana March 2, 2011 at 10:03 am

Dearest Ana,
not only is your mother’s name Liliana (Ljiljana), not only does she come from the same part of the world as I, but she also has the exact same accent!

How many lucky people can say that?

Maybe you and Mike were imprinted (like little duckings) with the sound of your mother’s voice. I don’t know.

But it does seem like this particular subject would make a fine theses topic for a young researcher, doesn’t it?

Hugs to you, young lady.


Jeff February 25, 2011 at 8:44 am

Coincidentally, I had to make a call to my bank to get some background ona deposit I had made a year ago – tax time and all that. I had some long conversations with the woman helping as she tried to dig back into the electronic files. For fractions of a moment, I heard a bit of an accent – otherwise she sounded straight up USA. So I asked her.

Yes, she said, I grew up in England. And as we talked more, her accent came out even further – I guess as she became more comfortable talking with me. One thing she said – which reminds me of your post – she almost lamented that both her children, born in the USA, had no accent at all. I agreed – it would have been nice if they had kept what their mother had brought to them from overseas.

I love accents – they tell stories… 🙂

– Jeff


Liliana February 25, 2011 at 8:54 am

I like the way you said that, “accents tell stories.” They do indeed.

The fact is though, that we all have accents, whether we are aware of it or not. If you go to England they will notice your accent right away!


Jelena February 25, 2011 at 9:28 am

We sure do all have accents, and you don’t have to go abroad to have someone notice that you have one (I mean the generic “you” here, BTW). Michigan accents. New York accents, Boston accents, California accents, southern accents–thay all tell stories. What I find fascinating is the the varied (both good and bad) ways in which people react to other people’s accents, as well as how people feel about their own accents. We’re fascinating creatures. And accents are part of us.


Liliana February 25, 2011 at 9:53 am

So true!

There is room in this world for us all – the more accents, the better.


Ana March 2, 2011 at 9:56 am

Yes! I completely agree. I wish they would emphasize this fact more in school; I feel like people from the Midwest think that they have a fairly “standard” accent. I had an interesting linguistics class about this type of thing actually – I guess there is a sort of normative idea of what’s “basic” based on the type of accent they train people to speak with on television and in newscasting, etc. But still. It’s an accent we select to be the standard anyway.


Liliana March 2, 2011 at 10:04 am

Exactly! Standards are not set in stone. Someone had to agree on them.

Everything is relative.

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