Written Words Don’t Have an Accent but Need a Voice

The draft of my new manuscript wasn’t finished by May 31st but it will by tomorrow. Each first draft I write reminds me of my first years in the US when learning the English language was both exciting and discouraging.

Less than a year after I left Paris, I went to a book reading. Quickly, I was lost in a succession of incoherent sounds that didn’t make words anymore, neither the words were making sentences or the sentences the story I had liked so much. I realized that I should have brought a copy of the book. I left the bookstore before the end of the event. How did I ever think that after so little time in the US, I could follow the reading of a book?
At that moment, I would have given anything to be back in Paris. I felt exhausted for always trying to understand and be understood. I walked home in the silence of my loneliness even though I lived in a lively neighborhood and my family was waiting for me at home.
One by one, stars appeared in the dark sky and if I never believed in magic, I made a vow. I promised myself that I would not only read English, but that I would speak it, understand it and write it.
The following day, I started the most rigorous diet a French woman ever followed. I read the daily paper from page one to the last every afternoon when my two babies napped. For three years, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and the many free local papers became my companions. Of course, I also invited my French English dictionary and the American Heritage dictionary to my daily ritual. Besides the newspapers, I also discovered the American literature. More determined than ever to be fluent in English, I quit reading in French. The recipe for fluency seemed, even to me, a little extreme but I believed that the dosage would work.
With my drastic plan, I quickly improved my vocabulary and could read entire pages without checking my dictionary every third word as I had done only months earlier. Yet, I still had to repeat many of my sentences to puzzled cashiers and to answer friendly questions about my origins. Obviously, if my daily reading medication worked, something was missing. I thought I had found the answer when I spotted an advertisement promoting English classes for non native speakers.
The classes promised fast results and were offered once a week at a high school located within walking distance from my home. Excited and full of hope, I went to the first class. Dozens of people looking as excited and hopeful waited for the miracle to happen. The teacher, young and friendly, handed us a questionnaire and a test. We had to complete both, return them to her desk and wait for an evaluation. A quick glance at the questions confirmed that my ferocious reading had definitely been a great strategy. As I was waiting for more news about my placement, the teacher walked up to me.
“You did great,” she said.
Good! The last months hadn’t been very encouraging and my self-esteem needed a booster shot.
“But why did you come?” She lowered her tone, looking around. “You are above what I can offer. There is nothing I can do here for you.”
Nothing? If there was nothing she could do, who would do it, then?
As if she had read my mind, she said. “Your grammar is good and your vocabulary will grow with reading.”
Duh, I thought. “But, my accent,” I said.
She smiled. “It’s a lovely accent.”
I was tired of having a lovely accent. I didn’t want an accent. I wanted to speak English like an American. If this lady couldn’t promise anything, I was on my own.
“Read, listen, meet people and talk with them, join discussion groups,” she went on. She smiled again, encouraging. “It takes time but you have an advantage.” She pointed to the room and the people who were still completing the test. “You can write. Written words don’t have an accent.”
Outside, night had fallen and a fresh breeze brought the promise of a beautiful morning. I wanted more than a beautiful morning. I wanted the promise of waking up, speaking like an American. Somehow, I knew I would need more than a night of sleep to achieve this goal and as I walked home I kept thinking of the young teacher’s advice. Practice sounded like the key word again and if I was tired at the idea of trying once more, I knew she was right.
Besides reading the daily paper and going to the library twice a week, I listened to the radio. It challenged me more than TV because at least TV provided the support of the pictures. People on the radio talked fast and I couldn’t see their faces. I got a few words here and there and although I could almost always summarize the subject, I missed the details and the inside jokes.
Again, I found comfort in books. The more I read, the more I enjoyed the American contemporary writers. With my babies in tow, I discovered children’s literature and we spent delightful hours at the library reading beautifully illustrated stories. Since I was concerned that my children could catch my accent, I translated in French the stories I checked out at the library.
As we shared the stories, I learned more than new words. I discovered the variety of the American children’s stories which surprised me in their willingness to address problems and social issues. French children’s books offered fantasy and poetic words, a land of dream to escape reality. The American stories showed no fear when they spoke of racism, sibling jealousy, family or social issues. I read to improve my English but I discovered the American heart when I explored the themes of the stories.
As for my accent, I had come to a truce. I would keep it, as obvious as a nose in the middle of a face but the young high school teacher’s comments inched their way to my mind, “Written words don’t have an accent.”

So, today as I scroll down my computer screen and read what I wrote in a month, I know I came a long way.
But if written words don’t have an accent, now I am facing another challenge: giving them a voice.

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