I have to start off this blog post by reminding readers that I am a Ghanaian who has lived all of her life in Ghana and only came to America some five years ago. Being a Ghanaian makes the English language my native language since English is the only accepted language serving as the medium for teaching in Ghanaian schools. There are several languages in Ghana and I speak about five of them but English is the official language of expression in schools in Ghana and among school children. Growing up, it was punishable to be heard speaking vernacular, which is a term used to describe all other languages in Ghana with the exception of English, while still wearing your school uniform. Hence, from infancy, I learned to think and write only in English. While there is of course, a subject in our school curriculum that encourages a student to choose a single Ghanaian language to learn how to read and write in, and then another subject to speak and read French because Ghana is surrounded by French speaking countries, English has always been the mode of expression among the educated folks in Ghana.
Growing up, I always excelled in subjects such as Spelling and Dictation, English Comprehension and Essay writing. In fact, I don’t remember when I had ever come second in any of these subjects growing up, I always came up first. My parents knew this and it gave them a lot of pride when our neighbors visited and they showed them some of my essays and writings in the English language. I loved to read American books and followed the logic in these books easily, although some of the concepts and settings were new to me. I thought it will be a walk in the park for me, when I finally arrived on American soil and will not suffer from the infamous culture shock.
Unfortunately for me, this was not the case! I found myself having to repeat almost everything I said to an American. I found myself being talked to slowly and very loudly whenever I was in a conversation with an American. It was confusing for me that I spoke perfect English but somehow, Americans kept asking each other what I had just said. I found it strange that although I had never spoken to an American prior to my coming to America, I tried to and actually understood whatever an American said to me but they on the other hand, could not or refused to understand me.
Hence, I found myself trying to pronounce certain words like Americans would. For some reason, Americans would not pronounce the letter ‘t’ in the middle of a sentence. Hence, words like water, matter, fighter, excited and the likes, were difficult for me to pronounce here in America. I had to intentionally, remind myself to either transform those ‘t’s into ‘d’s or remember to just silence them. This was a very difficult challenge for me! I found it extremely exasperating when I had to carefully scrutinize every sentence in a conversation in my head, before I uttered them. I found that I felt very obligated to speak like an American in order to be understood! But how can I change an accent that I have known for more than two decades of my life?
As I struggled with this in my first year of my arrival in America, I began to question whether an American will do this for me. I asked myself if it was worth it, to pretend for the rest of my stay here, to be an American? Was it worth trying to sound excited by everything because to me, Americans sound really excited when they speak! Is it not enough that my spellings had to change because my computer in America will keep underlining my words like ‘colour’ and ‘favour’ because it didn’t like my ‘u’?
Now more than ever, I have learned to accept the very intricate details that make me a Ghanaian, those little subtle pronunciations and mannerisms that make me Iris. I have learned to wear my Ghanaian accent with pride and not try to sound American. What America has taught me though is to be more confident when I am communicating. I have realized that my confidence makes it easier for Americans to accept my Ghanaian English and my accent. I have accepted the fact that I will never have an American accent but I don’t have a normal Ghanaian accent either. I now have a more confident Iris accent that I totally embrace!