In my years of learning English and Arabic whilst speaking Somali at home with my parents there is one thing I learnt: I must have as many accents as I have languages.
When I first started learning English, I was around 5/6 years old. I was fluent in Somali and very capable of pronouncing all the difficult consonants in that language. What I slowly but painfully realised was that there are letters and sounds in English that do not exist in the Somali language. My father was fluent in English but spoke it in a Somali accent so naturally, as kids do, I copied how he spoke English. Through tough experience (and luckily not humiliating) I discovered that it’s not ‘baber’, its paper. But why was I saying ‘baber’? Well, the letter P doesn’t exist in the Somali language so as my father and many other Somalis do, we replaced P with B, because we had the letter B in Somali.
The Somali language is a little bit like Arabic, it also has some Italian words in it too. We speak very fast, our consonants are strong, we roll our R’s, some of our sounds are pronounced from the upper back of our throat and others, lower down in our oesophagus. Because most of the sounds in our language require a wider range of vocal usage, we tend to use our face muscles much less. English pronunciation was not only hard because I had to soften my rolling R’s or introduce a completely new letter to my mouth such as P, but I had to widen my lips and almost smile when I pronounced the letter A. The inside of my mouth had to do a lot less work than usual and my face had to begin learning to support my lips in pronouncing words like ‘struggle’.
Years went on and due to my young age, I rapidly developed a native English accent to go with my now new second language. When I was 23, I decided I wanted to learn Arabic. I was already familiar with pronouncing a lot of letters and sounds but I had a few weaknesses. I wasn’t able to pronounce the difficult letters like ‘Quaf’ ‘Saad’ ‘Dhaat’, Etc. With repetition and listening to the pronunciation of these letters I got the hang of it and thought, well, great? Right? No, there was another problem, I was beginning to speak Arabic in an English accent.
When you speak Arabic in an English accent, it sounds like cutlery dropping on tiled floor. It’s cringy and it completely abolishes the beautiful sound of the Arabic language. And if you’ve never heard someone speak Arabic, do a quick Youtube search right now. The T sound in Arabic is blunt and soft and the T sound in my British English accent was a sharp tap of a cymbal. In Arabic the T sound does not require you to engage your teeth very much but the English T does require that. I was butchering Arabic in my English accent and it reminded me of when I was 5 years old, butchering English in my Somali accent and calling my class mate Paul, Baul. Peter Rabbit was Beter Rrrrrabbit.
Anyway, it was time to adopt a 3Rd accent. Did I really need it though? Would people still understand what I’m saying in Arabic if I pronounced the words in an English accent? I mean, when I spoke English in a Somali accent people definitely understood me most of the time (except when they thought I was making fun of Pauls name). However, Arabic is one of those languages where, if you mispronounce one word or one letter or one vowel or consonant or even reduce or extend a specific vowel, you will very likely change the meaning of the entire sentence.
This time, there was no option to butcher Arabic for a while, the choice was simple and clear. If I’m going to speak a language, I’m going to speak it in the correct accent.