More Than One Accent on One Tiny Island – Winter Vacation

March 17th, 2010

The Abacos, Our Favorite Bahamian Islands

After driving to Phoenix to visit our daughter for a brief winter vacation, Kim and I then flew East, to the tiny Bahamian island of Abaco.  We’ve been there many times, as it is one of our favorite places in the world.  Where Phoenix is desert dry and brown, with the only thing we love about it being Eve, our daughter, the Bahamas is a group of islands that is totally delightful.  We began going there because of the water, but have gone back over and over again because of the pure pleasure of being amongst what has to be the kindest, happiest group of people we’ve ever met.

Lush and Lovely

Lush and Lovely

The Bahamian Flag

The Bahamian Flag

Surf's Up at Treasure Cay Beach

Surf's Up at Treasure Cay Beach

Day After a Storm - Treasure Cay Beach and the Bahama Beach Club

Day After a Storm - Treasure Cay Beach and the Bahama Beach Club

This particular group of islands, the Abacos, was settled about 250 years ago by Loyalists from America.  They were on the British side of the Revolutionary War, and wanted to remain loyal to the crown. When it was no longer possible to remain in America and be a loyal British subject, this group relocated to the Abacos, bringing their African slaves, who were later emancipated, with them.  These descendants of these same people, white Abaconians and black Abaconians, have remained on these tiny islands ever since, forging a very distinctive society for themselves.

Abaconian Accents

One thing I find so interesting and charming about Abaconians is their accent.  They all speak English, however the English spoken by white Abaconians differs greatly from that spoken by black Abaconians.  As far as I can tell, the Island of Abaco is more integrated than most parts of the United States.  People live together, work together, and speak with each other every day.  And yet these two groups continue to speak English with completely different accents after 250 years of living in the same tiny place.

White Abaconians speak with a kind of flat, half Boston, half British accent.  It is very distinctive, yet easily understood by any English speaker.  No matter what the situation, or how rapid the speech, I can understand it as easily as I can understand any west coast American speech.  Although inflections differ, the music and rhythm of the speech is classic English.

Black Abaconians, however, sound completely different.  One of the most charming aspects of Bahamians is the lilting, musical sound of their speech.  There is laughter and kindness in the sound.  There is a song in every sentence.  It is a beautiful thing to hear.

The interesting thing, to me, is that it is a very easy speech to understand most of the time.  Clearly, though, it has a different beat from common American English or British English, and when Bahamians choose not to be understood, when they increase the pace of their conversations, when they clip their words a little more closely, when they don’t enunciate quite so clearly, it is impossible for me, a teacher of language, skilled in comprehension of heavily accented speech, to understand anything.

The Musicality of a Language

In previous posts I have discussed the musicality of a language, and how it impacts comprehension.  Here is an incredible example of it, within my own native language of English.  The very thing that makes Bahamian English so charming is what also can make it impossible for even an English speaker to understand.

Some of our clients at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English are too worried about improving their American accents so that no one will know they are not a native speaker of the language.  Not only is this nearly impossible for an adult, it is, in my opinion, not a good idea.  Accents in English are charming.  We Americans love a foreigner, especially one who speaks good English.  An accent is appealing, so long as it is understandable.

What speakers of English as a second language should strive for is pronouncing sounds in such a way that they can be understood by other speakers of English, whether it be their first or second language.  We just need you to be understandable to us, not to be American (or British, or whatever).  Master most of the sounds, and, most of all, master the rhythm of the language.  Then you will be understood.

2 Responses to “More Than One Accent on One Tiny Island – Winter Vacation”

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