Expanding what it means to sound Canadian
July 26, 2016
The Star | The I don’t quite remember how old I was when I realized my parents had Indian accents. Gradually, though, it dawned on me that the English they spoke sounded different from that on TV or what I heard from my teachers.
As I grew up — first in East London, then Toronto — I quickly learned that an Indian accent was used to connote something funny, something off. From the imitations I heard cast at me while walking down the street, to seeing teachers assume recent immigrants didn’t know as much, I understood that to have an accent different from others didn’t just mean you were an outsider — it meant you were somehow lesser. After arriving in Canada, I tried to hide my own British accent, adopting a faux-Canadian one to fit in.
Unfortunately, the lessons I learned burrowed deep into my psyche. As a teen, my Indo-Canadian friends and I would imitate our parents’ accents, mocking their unfamiliarity with the then-new Internet, or rap music, as if that knowledge gap were somehow cultural rather than simply generational. An Indian accent became a marker of being simple or behind the times, while a Canadian one meant one was both normal, and modern, too.
Thankfully, as I got older, I realized what I was doing and eased away from such habits. It’s a common trope of being an immigrant or a minority in Canada. First, you internalize prejudice, repeating a thing that ultimately harms you — and then slowly, you learn to unpack it, and realize the inherent bias at work.
Yet, if I came to see the light about what an accent does or doesn’t mean, such awareness hasn’t become widespread. Consider this: during the last federal election campaign, then minister of National Defence Jason Kenney came under fire for praising a Syrian refugee for his “unaccented English.” The tweet in which the claim was made was quickly deleted, but it still carried an implied message — that to have a Canadian accent is still thought of as ultimately “normal,” a kind of neutral default of what it means to truly belong.
It is a perspective that gets repeated throughout our culture. For example, in popular TV show30 Rock, the humour of Indian janitor Subhas often relied on what someone with that accent wasn’t expected to say; that a South Asian custodial worker wouldn’t call sexuality a “continuum” or “a vast ocean of pleasure.” The joke is that an “abnormal” accent means you are supposed to be disconnected somehow — not quite a part of contemporary life in the way your peers are. It’s that kind of mentality that may help explain why Priyanka Chopra, the Indian star of ABC’s show Quantico, seems to have adopted an American accent in interviews.
Yet both in Canada and across the world, forms of English have emerged that are entirely contemporary and spoken with accents that are not Canadian, American or British, but rather Indian, Nigerian, Latino, or of any other number of identities. When one listens to Bollywood stars, such as Aishwarya Rai, you hear a form of English that is modern, vibrant, but also uniquely Indian. It doesn’t conform to the idea that belonging is a process of assimilation — that to fit in is a slow march toward so-called “unaccented English.”
Changing our perception of accents, identity and legitimacy isn’t a simple matter. That bias runs deep in both society and culture. A first step toward change, then, might be representation: that is, seeing people with a variety of accents on TV and online, not always as depictions of “minorities” or “immigrants,” but, more simply, an expanding idea of what it means to both be — and sound — Canadian.