Hadil Ghoneim: Home Accents

The author at school in Kuwait. Courtesy of Hadil Ghoneim

“You speak with no accent,” the American man remarked. He was hosting our small Egyptian delegation for lunch, and I knew he meant it as a compliment. It was my first visit to the US, but instead of simply thanking him, I found myself thinking over his comment. “I actually speak English with an American accent,” I said. The awkwardness dissipated as I went on to tell the whole group about growing up in Kuwait, attending an American school where all my teachers were from the US. That school’s Lebanese-American founders probably had the same self-aggrandizing sense of identity, too. They named it The Universal American School.

American wasn’t the only accent I picked up there. The majority of my peers were the children of Lebanese, Palestinian, and Egyptian professionals working in Kuwait. There were very few Kuwaiti kids, some Iraqis, some Syrians, and a small assortment of non-Arab nationalities. I wasn’t even conscious that I was mimicking the other kids’ accents until the Arabic language teacher, assuming I was Kuwaiti, asked me to tell the class something about Kuwait. Before I could correct him, another kid shouted out that I was Palestinian, only to be corrected by another. I was embarrassed, but also surprised at how deceptive my speech could be. I wasn’t aware that I was an accent chameleon. For a long time after that incident, I thought the way I spoke must be the result of some weakness or insecurity that I had as a child in a culturally mixed community. Nothing reassured me about my bidialectalism until I came across some British research on accents (the Brits are famous for obsessing over voices). Rather than a sign of inauthenticity, research shows that switching dialects and accents is a natural and subconscious adaptive impulse, and that it can be attributed to the increased mobility of the middle classes.

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