To be understood

That cute little girl in the red sounds only mildly Southern most of the time.

Despite living out in the country south of Fort Smith for the first 19 years of my life, I’ve never had much of a Southern accent. That came in handy for what I intended to do when I went to college (broadcast news) since at that time TV and radio journalists were advised to cultivate a placeless Midwestern/basic American accent. (Listening to newscasters now, that’s apparently no longer a thing. I would think that would cut down on job opportunities, but what do I know?)

Mama and Daddy were both native Arkansans, but Mama spent a good part of her early life in California before returning to Arkansas during high school. Her accent was flatter than Daddy’s was because of the time spent outside the state. Her mom was born in Texas and, even though Nanny was just a kid when she and her family moved to Arkansas in the 1920s (by covered wagon, no less), she could, like many native Texans, put up to seven or so syllables in one-syllable cuss words. (Grandpa was a sailor who didn’t cuss, so Nanny made up for it.)

That little sideways glance always gets me. It’s almost like she’s saying, “Now, Grover, you know I’m gonna cuss.”

Add to that the nearness of several state borders (Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas), the large migrant population (primarily Vietnamese and Mexican) working at area factories and farms and the number of business executives who moved their families to the area for work, and my lack of a strong accent shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Indeed, there weren’t a lot of strong accents where I lived (what’s called the Midland dialect, sometimes northern and sometimes southern, is prominent in northwest Arkansas; mine is more northern Midland).

When I moved to Jonesboro for college, I was suddenly met with a plethora of accents from just about everywhere (the Jersey accent amused me most of all), but a lot of the people native to northeast Arkansas had accents like mine, though with a little bit of Delta flavor. The further south, the more drawl. So now when someone talks about “the” Arkansas accent, I have to wonder if they really think we all sound the same.

I remember that when I went to Chicago the first time, people didn’t think I was from Arkansas unless I was wearing my Arkansas 4-H nametag. I realize that it’s probably because of postcards like this. Image found on eBay.

Which is why I question surveys that group all of a state’s residents together, like the recent one from Family Destinations Guide, which asked 3,000 participants to rate their level of understanding “to gauge how difficult it was for Americans to communicate effectively when traveling overseas.” Rhode Island’s and Maine’s New England accents were ranked as the two hardest to understand, followed by Alabama, New York, Louisiana (really, after Alabama?), Connecticut, New Jersey, Arkansas, Massachusetts and Mississippi.

Arkansas had the eighth hardest accent to understand. But which one? A press release about the survey noted, “This state contains several accents, such as ‘Ozark,’ but the most common is the Southern accent (with some regional variations). Arkansas tourists may find being understood quite challenging when traveling abroad—one of the main reasons is the unique pronunciation of certain words, including the blending or dropping of certain vowel sounds. Additionally, Southern dialects often include slang and idiomatic expressions—asking ‘y’all’ directions may result in some quizzical looks abroad!”

Well, what do you expect if you’re speaking English in a non-English-speaking country, and not even using one of those nifty little translation apps on your smartphone?

One of the things you can do with some translation apps is take pictures of street signs, product packaging, etc., and get a translation. Some will even translate conversations simultaneously. Image found on HuffPost.

In a spring 2022 story in the Arkansas Humanity Council’s Connect, Ben Corbett, assistant professor of theater-voice and acting at the University of Arkansas was asked about his Arkansas Accent Project, which is to include a documentary using live interviews of native Arkansans from the five major geographic regions in the state. While he’s found a lot of commonalities (like dropping the g sound in words ending in -ing), Corbett said that not only can accents differ by region, but by ethnicity, as well as the accents heard growing up (such as a Vietnamese or Hispanic Arkansan).

“If all these people were born and raised in Arkansas, can all these accents be considered Arkansan?” Corbett said. “If they are all ‘from here,’ could the Arkansas accent have more than one sound, one flavor? If not, why?”

Arkansas doesn’t really have one accent (neither do most states; if you think someone from East Texas will sound like someone from West Texas, you’re wrong). You might find sweet and lilting (and far more Southern) accents around the rural Delta, a bit of “Ozarks/Appalachian-lite” in northern Arkansas, while in Little Rock or other cities, you may find that Midland accent that sounds to many like “Southern lite.” And sure, I always sound a bit more “country” when I go home, but that may just be the mimic in me. (Leslie Rutledge lays it on thick when she goes on Fox “News” and other cable channels, but that’s not really natural from what I gather.)

Hard to understand? Not really. I can think of a lot of accents that make me struggle more than any in Arkansas (hey, I had a Cajun English teacher in junior high). Besides, the survey in question talked to U.S. families. Wouldn’t the people in the nations they visit be better judges of whose accent is hard to understand? And why are we not at least attempting their languages?

We’re very presumptuous in that we expect everyone to speak our preferred language no matter where we are. Cartoon found on Language as Culture (I’d credit the artist, but I haven’t been able to confirm who it is other than someone with the last name Wallace; Google Lens was no help).

Ay, there’s the rub.

Kathleen Stein-Smith, associate university librarian and adjunct faculty at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, noted in Language Magazine: “Challenges to the development of foreign-language skills among English-speaking Americans include the sense that English is the global lingua franca. While it is true that many internationals may speak English, it is estimated that 75 percent of the world’s population does not speak English.”

The use of English abroad in the hospitality industry and in diplomacy helps fool Americans into thinking English is dominant, but there is also the matter that foreign languages are given short shrift here, with instructors in college and high school becoming more scarce as courses and sometimes entire departments are cut.

Meanwhile, as Stein-Smith wrote in a 2019 Conversation essay, “in Europe, studying a foreign language is a ‘nearly ubiquitous experience.’ This is because most European countries—unlike the United States—have national-level mandates that require foreign language instruction.”

But it’s hard! Itchy Feet by Malachi Ray Rempen.

Well, of course, because … uh … woke!!! Clearly, accepting that English, especially the American version, isn’t universal is nigh unto treason.

Foreign language instruction really needs to begin in elementary school, not high school, as students are more likely to retain it the earlier education starts. (I took two years of French in high school, though really just a little over one since the French II class of four people was lumped in with French I. I barely recall much of what I learned, and would never be able to carry on a conversation in French. I do know a few words or phrases in several languages—most importantly, “Where is the bathroom?”—but not enough to matter. I regret that I didn’t take a language class in college.)

I know there’s been a surge in people pushing for isolationism here, but that’s just not possible. Perhaps it’s time we in the U.S. figured out that we’re not the only people in the world and that the onus is on us to be understood, not those whose nations we visit. Plus, with commerce being global, being multilingual is good for business.

We also ought to remember that English was not the first language in the U.S. (there are the numerous Native American languages, plus French, Spanish, Dutch, etc.). Maybe it’s time to put the “English only” rhetoric to bed for good.

Charlie is dubious of your efforts to remain monolingual. He believes at minimum you should learn to speak cat. Not dog, though, unless you want to talk endlessly about squirrels and balls.