Gringo Thoughts: Mocking Accents

Gringo Thoughts – my rants based on my own personal experiences and frustrations of living as a gringa in a foreign country. This post does not necessarily represent my  more thought out, less emotionally driven views on any particular subject and is meant to be taken lightly. Every day is a lesson, and the best thing I’ve learned is to accept, but for this post, I will  bitch rant and complain. Enjoy! 
A couple months ago, I started a new job and found myself working with a fellow gringa. Always a good surprise, and one thing that came up during one of our conversations was that some Chileans would mock her pronunciation or make fun of her mistakes in Spanish. It’s not exclusively a Chilean thing, but it’s happened to me here on occasion and I’ve witnessed it often enough over the years with foreigners that it has become really annoying.

First of all, it’s one thing to correct someone, which I is fine, and it’s another to make it into a laughing matter. Yeah, maybe if someone were to mix up ano with año – I would laugh too, but that’s not the type of thing I’m bothered with. 

After the 100th Time, It’s Not that Funny

It’s really annoying to encounter the lack of goodwill in attempting to understand someone without first mocking them in the way they phrase or pronounce things. Most non-native speakers will have a heavy to light accent, depending on various factors, and it’s almost inevitable. The point of language is to communicate within a particular language community. If I can understand you and you speak grammatically correct WHO CARES if you have an accent? Yeah, it might be funny sometimes to imitate people, but it gets old quickly and there is a point where it’s no longer funny and it becomes really inappropriate. 
Unless you’re a stand-up comedian or close to someone with an accent, making fun of the way they speak is rude! Recently, I met someone at an event, and the fist thing he asked me was where I’m from. After telling him that I’m from the US, he says something in Spanish imitating the American accent purposefully pronouncing the r as gringos stereotypically do. I just met this guy, am I supposed to think this is funny? Then he proceeded to try to sell me something! WTF?

Why Are You Speaking to Me in English?

Sometimes people in Chile (and other Latin American countries) will simply try to speak to yo in English. This can be really accommodating if your traveling and your speaking levels are low. For someone like myself who has lived here for years, it’s annoying. To me that says one of three things:

  1. I heard you speak to me in Spanish, but it was so bad that I’m just going to try to speak to you in English, or 
  2. I’m going to show off by speaking English to you despite your fluency in Spanish after I picked up on your accent, or 
  3. I want to practice, and I’m taking advantage of every chance I get! 

Despite being irked by this, I don’t mind it too much, unless their English is worse than my Spanish which is most often the case. It just leads to bad communication and loss of precious time attempting to communicate and decipher what someone is saying in broken English.

Learning a New Language

It took me a long time to finally push myself to speak Spanish. I’m a heritage speaker, meaning I grew up with Spanish spoken around me, I have always understood it, and when I was young I used to speak it, later ”lost it”, and in college studied Spanish, studied abroad, and now I speak it fluently with a slight carryover accent when I lack confidence. I should speak it better than I do, but I don’t have a ”gringo accent”. People know I’m a foreigner in Chile, and I’ve been asked if I’m Colombian, Peruvian, Mexican, etc..

This isn’t about me personally; I couldn’t care less about whether I have an accent or if I make mistakes because I consciously try to correct them and see it as a way of improving my Spanish and my accent may never sound like a native Chilean. I get that, BUT I can’t see how it’s funny to make fun of or imitate people in their face about their accent or their mistakes.

The worst part is that it usually comes from monolingual people. Maybe this shows something about them as well. Sometimes I feel like challenging people to speak English and return the favor. Fortunately I’m not that mala onda, and I know that language is an acquired skill that takes a lot of practice to master.

Would most Chileans sound like this if they were to attempt English? Check out that gringo accent at the end. You get the idea. 

You’re Not One of Us

But aside from mocking accents or mistakes, it’s the constant reminder saying, ”Hey, you’re different!” I realize that, I’ve gotten over it, why are you reminding me and why is this important to you? I have the same feeling when in the US, my own country, people ask me where I’m from. My answer is usually California, but I know what they really mean, I’m always interested in how people phrase the following question, like: “No, where are you really from?” or ”What is your ethnicity/race/heritage/background?” or, my personal favorite, ”What are you?”. I’m not bothered by the fact that someone is curious and would like to know my ethnic background, but the fact that I’m asked ”where I’m from” as if I were a foreigner in my own country – ”Hey, you’re different!”. Well, who isn’t? That’s just boring.

Chilean Culture and Humor

I’ve wondered if this is considered “OK” to chide foreigners or if it’s a ”cultural” thing because, comparatively, there are fewer foreigners speaking Spanish here than foreigners who speak English abroad. Part of it has to do with experience with other cultures and language groups. In the States, you come across a diverse group of people, and unsurprisingly some of them will have accents as they carryover their native language’s phonology and intonation. I hear non-native English speakers make mistakes or pronounce things in a way that would have never occurred to me, but it generally doesn’t phase me – they’re non-native speakers! I would be more surprised if they spoke perfectly. 

Not to mention it’s not just mocking gringos or Europeans (I’ve mainly seen this with the French), it’s also mocking other native Spanish speaking people like everyone from the Caribbean. Really?

To put things into perspective, I don’t assume all Chileans are intentionally trying to poke fun or mock foreigners, and there is just one reason that comes to mind that breaks all of the above down: Chilean humor. They love to joke and even make fun of each other all the time. It’s nothing new to hear jokes about someone being overweight, their new haircut, every and anything someone says, etc. It’s almost like a bonding experience, and if you can keep up with a group of Chileans with their quick jovial comments and comebacks, you’ll be that much closer to them. Maybe I’m being sensitive, or Chileans are less politically correct than we are in the States, but I know one thing for sure: Los Chilenos son buenos pa’ leciar! / Chileans love to joke around!

Everyone Everywhere Does It

To end this rant on a lighter note, anywhere you go you’ll encounter people who will mock or make fun of your accent if you don’t speak the standard dialect, but it just feels different to hear it from your countrymen than as a foreigner making an effort to speak a different language and understand a different culture. It’s discouraging, and almost feels like a slap in the face.

“How many Northern Californians does it take to change a light bulb? Hella. How long does it take them? For days!”
Yes, I say ”hella” and ”for days” (as in literally taking a days or a relatively long time), but I own it. Own your gringo accents, you’ve been on a journey and your accent is just one part of it. 


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4 comments

  • I am a Chilean born woman and now had been in Australia for more than 2 x decades. I am thinking of moving back to Chile in a couple of years.
    Kitty, just came accross, your chilean stories specially reading the 10 things that still bother you living in Chile, and I am enjoying your stories, good o bad. I am originally from La Serena 🙂

  • I live in Colombia and share the frustration about people commenting on accents, especially my daughter’s. It certainly is not an encouraging environment to learn a language. And as you say, those commenting are almost always monolingual themselves. It just doesn’t seem friendly and as an ESL teacher from the States it simply seems rude to me.

    Maria

  • Maybe it’s a city thing
    I have found most Chileans to be extremely accommodating, understanding, and helpful.
    And the only time I have been laughed at is when I realized it was funny,too!
    And let`s face it learning a new language leaves you vulnerable until you’ve got a real handle on it
    And there are so many opportunities to really mess up and make a fool of yourself so it helps to have a sense of humor!

    • Not sure. I’ve only lived in Santiago and in the Viña / Valparaíso so my experience is limited to those areas, and of course it might not be representative of all of Chile.

      You’re right, it’s always good to have a sense of humor! I don’t think most people have bad intentions, at least I don’t get that feeling from them. Fortunately it doesn’t happen to me very often if at all, but I’ve seen it with other foreign friends. It’s usually awkward but there are times when innocent mistakes are funny for everyone.
      Crystal recently posted…10 Panoramas en Valparaíso para este finde (30 Oct – 1 Nov)My Profile

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