Thoughts on image and accents

June 16, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

I always find it interesting that one’s perception of apperance often overrides their ability to distinguish things aurally. Back when I was working as an RA, I had a Vietnamese resident who was born and raised in Germany. He didn’t speak any Vietnamese, and had a heavy German accent when he spoke English. But for several months, everyone on our floor assumed that his accent was Vietnamese. Once they realized he was from Germany, people noted that it was almost as if someone flipped a switch in their brains and the accent suddently turned into a very obviously German one. Likewise, when I was in Korea, a lot of the people there had a hard time believing that the Asian-Americans who came to do missionary work there could actually speak English without an accent.

On occasion I’ll get a comment on my youtube videos from a non-Japanese speaking person (or perhaps a non-Japanese person who watches a lot of anime and likes to say they “speak” Japanese because they studied it for a few semesters in college) concerning my “accent.” It’s funny to me because I don’t have an accent when I speak or sing in Japanese since I grew up speaking it. At this point I usually direct them to my last name and point out the fact that I am Japanese. An even more baffling thing is the fact that on occasion I will get a comment about my “accent” when speaking English, despite the fact that I grew up speaking this language as well. When people perceive me as Caucasian, they have a hard time wrapping their head around the fact that I can speak Japanese without an accent, and likewise, when people perceive me as being Japanese, they have a hard time wrapping their head around the fact that I have no accent when speaking English either.

Growing up as a “hapa” (in my case, half-Japanese and half-European descent) I often struggled with identity since people seemed to have such widely varied opinions about my race. On the upside, I’ve found that my own personal experiences have helped me to be more open-minded and able to relate to wider groups of people. I’ve also come to understand that as humans we are such visual beings that we almost can’t help our intial perceptions. However, I still consider it rather foolish to condescendingly tell someone “your accent could be better” if you don’t even know enough about the language to be able to distinguish a native speaker from a non-native one 😛


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  1. My mother is full Japanese, and in college she was a student teacher…for a German class. On the first day of a new semester, people would walk into class, see a little Japanese lady teaching, walk out, look up at the room number, look down at their schedules, walk back in, check if the other students had the same textbook…

    She’s third-generation American, so despite her full-Japanese ancestry she only speaks smidgens of Japanese. She did missionary work in the States, and there were people that just couldn’t get over how good her English accent was. She spoke like a native! Imagine that.

    Her brother had the opposite problem in his missionary service in Japan. When he was new and couldn’t speak much Japanese yet, he was partnered with an American missionary that actually looked American but could communicate. His companion did almost all the talking, so people would say how nice it was that he’d brought his “special” friend along.

    Anyway, great post! I’m a Japanese-looking linguist with only a couple years of Japanese under my belt, and I’m looking into going to Japan to teach English, so I’m sure I’ll run into some variations of this myself.

  2. Some people can be pretty daft when it comes to preconceived notions; getting comments like that must be both annoying and facepalm-worthy. There are a lot of people who take honest efforts in learning another culture and language, which is wonderful, but it’s pretty sad that there’s also that small group who are super elitist about things in a really artificial way.

  3. I didn’t realize that there was an accent for Japanese speaking, I guess it makes sense since there are accents in English, but I sure wouldn’t be able to distinguish one in Japanese since I am not familiar enough with the language. Still, I am surprised that you would be criticized for either.

    Very interesting though how perceptions do effect us like that. People sometimes expect me to sound Irish because of my skin and hair. Some people even thought I was Australian.

    Differences make the world go round! 🙂 Fun to ponder about them.

  4. Interesting… I never thought of that ^_^

  5. As an American of European descent who grew up only speaking English I’m incredibly jealous of your multi-lingual background!

    Perception is funny though, I just got back from a two week trip to Japan (loved it!!!) and some people seemed quite surprised when I could speak a little Japanese :-). That and I had to ask for chopsticks (which I prefer for eating Asian dishes) because they gave me western silverware by default 🙂

  6. For me, it doesn’t matter if you have Japanese accent or not. What matters if a person can teach me Nihongo- some shortcuts they use in their usual/colloquial everyday conversation.

  7. Interesting observation! I’ve never really thought of that, but for me it’s moreso the case when people of a certain background speak English with a completely unexpected accent, that its surprises me xD
    e.g. middle aged Chinese teacher with a very strong… uhh ‘began’ accent

  8. We have really come out of your shell since 2005 haven’t we? I wish I knew you before 2001 when Wikipedians created your lifestyle. I think you are Kit Kittredge, Molly McIntire, and Samantha Parkington. Except you’re mine. 1990s and 2000s. That’s why you’re famous. That’s why Joe loves you.

  9. I saw a comment on Youtube about that today. “Accent could be better”. I chuckled, wondering what could possess someone to presume to write something like that, as it shows their obvious lack of understanding of the language. Anyone who has listened to the language for a while (spoken or sung) would be able to recognize that there is no problem with your accent. On top of that, even if there was some fault to be found, what would be the point of mentioning it? I think this comes down to “Youtube Mentality”. With the large audience that Youtube affords, one is bound to encounter the occasional ding-dong.

    Personally, I hope to one day be a Japanese teacher (I’ve substitute-taught and TAed for many years), and have already encountered the mentality, of “uh, but you’re a white guy..”. It’s just something we must endure.

  10. Personally I could care less about an accent up to point we understand each other in conversation. I am a full middle european slavic from both sides (deep history reveals partial swedish ancestry with only effect= my hair). I grew up to be really tolerant in probably almost every way that doesn’t insult a person (at least I hope so). I would probably find a japanese-looking person teaching germany rather amusing/interesting in a good way than weird.

    I met many interesting foreginers. I remember first year when I was starting Taekwondo we had this guy who studiet at the university and was from Austria I was more or less the only person that would translate for him to get what the master or someone else who was teaching us said.

    On issue of accent I remember funny thing about it. That my sister is refering to it as horrible yet when we had at school this person from American embassy he praised my english when I was asking some question afterwards. So I realy dunno about me but I can understand and talk well enough with people and that’s sufficient to me. ^^
    I also rarelly corrected other people. Even my former classmates and underclassmates

  11. It’s weird for foreigners to see someone’s face and voice not matching up, but people get used to it after a while. I traveled a lot when I was young, even though I speak Chinese at home, I first learned English in school before properly learning Chinese, yet I speak both languages fluently without accents. I think being bilingual and mulch-lingual is going to be more and more common as a result of globalization and racial inter-mixing, already is in Europe. It might be a problem for people born of mixed races to struggle with racial identity for now, but once we come to accept we’re all earthlings, and language is just a tool of communication, accent or not, it doesn’t matter.

    By the way, back in high school, I had a history teacher that was half Caucasian and half Japanese who is from Connecticut, she looks a lot like you.

    p.s. I just finished playing Zombies vs. Plants and I loved your singing. I can’t stop listening to it, it’s so cute, undead, cheerful, dark and warm, all at the same time. I think I’m hooked lol.

  12. I’m of full Chinese descent from Hong Kong, but was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, so i speak native English and Cantonese relatively well. I spent two years as a missionary in Sydney, Australia. I guess I soaked up the accent like a sponge without noticing because when i came back, everybody told me that i spoke with a Chinese-Australian accent. I always found it SO weird that people from every area of my life wouldn’t say that i had an Australian accent, but a Chinese-Australian accent, even though i have no Chinese accent in my English at all. I guess perception really does shape our thinking; people seem to categorize others according to their own ideas and to make sense of people from their own point of view.

  13. Offtopic:
    You have a smiley on the bottom on every page on this website!!! 😮 :O :D.

    I like your Japanese very much. I’m very fascinated by all things Japanese: culture, education, traditions, they are all so meaningfull. I think Japanese is the most beautifull language there is, and I tend to learn it. But it is soooooo hard! Some words sound a lot like the English version though. I tried to learn it on my own using internet sites and applications, but I probably need to take classes. I hope that I’ll soon be able to travel to Japan for a longer period (expensive to travel to and within Japan too).

    People commenting on your “accent” probably have seen every Naruto episode and now think they know Japanese :’).

  14. My mom is also half Japanese and I’m one quarter. I definitely don’t hear any accent in you at all. You have a cute soft voice, but there’s no accent. I wish I had taken time to learn Japanese. My mom did try to teach me some as a kid, but she got too busy.

    Have you heard of the film, Hafu? If not, look it up. It’s very interesting!

  15. I think that you have wonderful pronunciation in both languages. I recently moved to the south, and I have trouble understanding the English!

    Although, one thing I’ve noticed about advanced Japanese/English bilinguals is a huge amount of flexibility with l/r/d/ sounds, leading to smoother (and altogether more elegant) transitions between some words.

    Similarly, I have noticed that people who speak Arabic have more sounds as well. Not an accent, just a larger library of producible sounds.

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