One of the most annoying aspects about being a Third Culture Kid is trying to explain your accent to other people. There are so many extremes with regard to this, that talking about the problem with accents is just inevitable. In fact, eventually almost Third Culture Kids start wondering about their accents at some point or another.
When someone asks me “what kind of accent do you have”, I’m flabbergasted. The truth is I don’t know. It’s a mix of the places I’ve lived in – yet my accent keeps changing too. People have said that my accent sounds British, American, Asian, African (I’m sure there are other nationalities and continents that can be included into this list as well). It’s quite amusing to be honest.
As if Third Culture Kids weren’t already confused, the problem of accents just adds another confusion to their already long list of confusions. Most Third Culture Kids discover that their accents change according to the situation, and according to the person they are talking to. Sounds a bit strange, but that’s what happens to me as well.
I realised (after more than 2 decades of being a Third Culture Kid) that I try to speak like the person who is speaking to me, without even being aware of it. Well whoever said that TCKs have a chameleon-like ability to adapt into environments, must surely not have thought about this particular superhuman ability. Whereas this ability may have positive effects (such as the person understanding what you are saying), it also might result in many negative effects.
Many people in my passport country have thought that I put on an accent. In fact they were certain of it some time later when they heard my accent change (after I would return from holidays abroad etc). But putting on an accent is not exactly what a TCK does. Putting on an accent means you are doing it consciously. For a TCK, it happens unknowingly.
I never know how to explain why my accent is the way it is. I can start speaking in a completely different accent conversationally, and then put on another accent when I speak officially. Most people who think you’re putting on an accent find you pretentious and snobbish, attention-seeking, and a host of other negative things. Then when and if they get to know you better, your international experiences don’t seem to fully explain why your accent cannot really be placed, and why you change your accent so many times. You also fail to describe the phenomenon properly because you don’t know honestly.
The funniest thing is when people tell you their opinions about your accent. When I was in college, someone told me my accent had become ‘Indianised’ after living in India for a few years. Then someone else later told me that my accent sounded like the accents in my Indian state (though I know there is absolutely no resemblance). Then a stranger told me that my accent had very strong Caribbean traces (how can that happen when I’ve never been to that part of the world). Whatever it is, people’s opinions of your accent really make up some great stories. They also make you wonder a bit more seriously about this accent you have.
Whatever your accent might be, it’s a given that you will never be fully able to describe why it is the way it is. Experiences are just too complex to define how the way you speak has finally become the way it is.
But I’ve come to a conclusion now. If now someone asks me what kind of accent I have, I’m just going to say ‘international’, and leave it at that.