I didn’t speak any English until I was 19 years old. I started taking classes when I was 16. Before starting the classes in 2001, everything was a big blur. I was obsessed with Pop Music and American movies, that helped me out a lot with my vocabulary. When I was able to take classes, those random words I had in my mind, from movies and music, gave me confidence to lift up my hand in order to answer every question my teacher asked, even though she didn’t want me to.
Moving to the United States was my plan since I was 12 (when hell broke loose in my house), I knew the only way for me to get out of Brazil, was to learn English, therefore and I mimicked every word I could understand from shows on tv. Friends and Gilmore Girls were my favorite at that time, although I had an incredible difficulty time understanding what Lorelai was saying to Rory, because the dialogue was really fast. I still have problems with Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which is from the same producer of Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman Palladino. If you blink, you miss it. I had to pick up speed, but even after all these years, I am still comfortable watching the shows with English subtitles. Just in case I blink.
Friends was the show that gave me my first set of words that I could use and make jokes with “How you Doin?”. I didn’t understand the jokes, because they were related to situations happening here. I didn’t watch the show until 2001, because we didn’t have cable at home. The English Course would let me rent VHS tapes of some episodes, so I used to rent them when they were available, cracking my brain and pretending to understand what was going on, because the subtitles were, of course, in English. I can’t believe I have been watching the Re-run for almost 20 years now.
The show for me represented the part of a culture I wanted to be in. Living in New York, with friends in the most unreal situations. I mimicked it so much when I say “Coffee” comes out with a New York accent. I know that because the waitress at a Waffle House told me, and I would like to believe he was being honest with me. Music was another way I found to pronounce words, as I repeated the same word probably 200 times a day with Christina Aguilera and Backstreet Boys playing on my boombox while torturing the neighbors.
The songs came out perfectly pronounced, even though I had no idea of what I was singing. Thirteen-year-old me, deeply jamming to Spice Girls, “When 2 become one”, having no idea of what that actually meant. I can never get over the fact the words were saying “are you as good as I remember baby? Put it on, put it, because tonight is the night when two become one.” Wow Emma, Rated R! There were other songs, like Red Hot Chili Peppers – Scar Tissue, when I sang it came out like this “it’s per the shane is a long way view”, I had no idea of what I was saying. “Scrubs”, from TLC was one of my favorites.
The fact I was obsessed with tv and American music, helped me out greatly. I learned since the first time I did my summer college program here in North Carolina, I would have to work on my accent and make sure people would understand me, I understood this long before I moved to Georgia. I was so tired of being questioned and made fun of because of my accent, I decided to look up YouTube for some accent tone down lessons. I found a few videos of actor preparation to play parts with different accents and the exercise practice, and I started to once again mimicking those vocal sounds.
It’s sad how much of myself I had to change while I was in Georgia. Especially working in restaurants, people were more interested in knowing where I came from than the food itself, and then they wanted to blame it on me when they messed up the order. I was constantly told that all my mistakes were due to my language barrier. I was told to say the ingredients and preparation methods, without a margin of error towards my speech. Like I was born and raised here. So, after a lot of harassment at the restaurant, I decided to work on my accent. I only noticed the difference when I started creative writing school. The classes were all online and the teacher had to be able to understand all the students, and thank God she understood me.
I never wanted to lose my accent. I was forced into it, in order to blend in and get by. It still gets pretty rough when I talk to my family, in my native language, but most of the time, I’m paying attention to how I sound and let me tell you, it is exhausting. I worked hard for years to be fluent, but I never thought that I would actually have to sound like an American to be accepted. Let me also tell you, I’m done trying. Come as you are, I’m tired.
When you say you are from Brazil, people usually look at you and expect you have lived with a Cheetah by the river. Wearing only leaves to covering your body. We are exotic for sure, but some of us live in a population of 12 million people, and none of us have cheetahs. My whole point is, don’t judge anyone by their accent, you don’t know how hard they worked to speak another language. Don’t expect them to have a full clear pronunciation of words, they will, more likely, use the same tone of their native language, and it’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t want to lose the only part that feels like home to them.
All I have to say is, hold tight to your culture, keep your accent and be proud of your accomplishments.
Have a great week!
J. G. Snelly