I’d been living in Spain for several years and was pretty used to watching American movies dubbed into Spanish.
In my first couple of years here, I would have to wait a while before a new movie was presented in cinemas. There was a short delay, usually several months, between when a movie had opened in the States to when it was projected on screens here, almost always dubbed.
The pity was, though, that the dubbing actors in Spain all seemed to be from Madrid. They all had that “trained”, professional sound of living in the capital of the country. There seemed to be little effort made to reflect, through the use of accents or dialects, the original accents or dialects of the American actors in the film.
So, I saw a movie with Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves and Charlize Therone called “El abogado del Diablo” (in English, “The Devil’s Advocate”), dubbed as usual, in Madrid-style Castilian Spanish. I enjoyed the movie, looked like a metaphor that was highlighting the differences between world views of the two main characters, Pacino’s and Reeves’, on moral issues often represented in lawyer-type dramas, with a touch of the supernatural.
At that time, though, my television did not have what is called here “dual” channels. The “dual” feature on televisions meant that you could push a button on the remote control and change the soundtrack from the dubbed version to the original version. This is the late ‘90s, so there wasn’t the option of streaming or downloading the film online, had to watch it on TV. So, I watched it dubbed.
Years later, though, I had the opportunity to see the film on a more modern TV and chose to watch it with the original soundtrack. Suddenly, the moral metaphor I had intuitively sensed only from the storyline itself became auditively evident. The actors Reeves and Therone were using regional accents that reflected the dialects used in Florida, despite Reeves having grown up in Canada and Therone in South Africa. The use of these accents contrasted, of course, with the New York accent/dialect used by Pacino and the other northerners in the New York setting.
Just hearing those accents placed next to one another, the slowish drawl of Florida against the quick clip of New York, helped to delineate between the two worlds represented, the quick, dog-eat-dog lifestyle of the northern lawyer vs. the sleeping-dog-chews-slowly-on-dog accent of the southern lawyer. Even in the relationships between Therone’s character and the New York women she meets, one can feel there is an unspoken cultural gulf between how each looks at life, love and work.
That is the importance of dialect, often reflected in accent. I grew up in the Midwest of the USA, first in Illinois, later in Colorado. There is a difference between how each group of people speak, based on local vocabulary and group conformity. After several years in Colorado, I moved back to Illinois and was struck by how differently people spoke there. I began to study and adapt my language to Illinois-talk in order to fit in. My speech became more nasal, I used expressions I hadn’t before, like “you bet!” and “he’s a pistol” and the like.
I studied Theatre in university, first acting, then moving to the more useful directing and business management. During the first year, I was told by my acting coach that I would need to take voice lessons in order to control how I used speech to portray characters. It was in those voice lessons that I studied and learned the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). This was used, in the best Henry Higgins way, to analyze and later produce different accents. My professor, Mim Cany, was an expert in dialects and was heavy-handed (though kind!) on the production of individual sounds that would give the impression of a particular dialect while allowing clear readings of dramatic texts.
This voice training later became a basis for my own teaching of pronunciation in the ESL classroom. Our voice textbook, Arthur Lessac’s “The Use and Training of the Human Voice”, had changed my way of looking at the production of sound. It was far from the concentration upon individual sounds as the focus of pronunciation, placing them properly in the realm of “building blocks”. The Lessac method brings the entire body into the equation, and most importantly, aids the speaker in understanding how sounds can be gleefully and easily strung together to create utterances.
As an ESL teacher I’ve always been critical of the use of the IPA in the classroom for a number of reasons. At university, it was probably the dullest and most tedious thing I had to study and pass on an exam. With 107 graphic symbols and around 52 “diacritics” (modifying symbols, for example, elisions and accent marks), it just seemed like so much additional information for ESL students to learn and often led to useless nit-picking about how individual sounds are “correctly” pronounced. After that single voice class way back in 1981, I never used or consulted the IPA again.
The Lessac material, though, was of essential use to me. A student from the Bronx, a native English speaker, came to me, an ESL teacher, specifically because of her Bronx accent, combined with the peculiar Bronx dialect of New York English she spoke. She indicated that she wanted to neutralize that sound coming from her mouth because her supervisor had told her that she would never get a promotion as long as she spoke like “that”.
Another student, a Czech man with a very high proficiency in English, wanted me to erase his native accent totally. At that time I only spoke English, and I asked him about the objective in engaging in such an arduous task (accent reduction is not a piece of cake!). He was vague in his reply, so I commented that the only people I could imagine needing to totally erase their native accent would be those with something to hide or foreign spies. His reply was a knowing look, nothing more.
I have been speaking Spanish fluently for 30 years now. I am almost never at a loss for words, know so many local expressions and sayings that I constantly surprise the natives I speak with, and am likewise almost never in a cloud of disunderstanding when listening to natives speak. However, I’ve got an accent.
It’s not the normal, hard line American accent that makes Spanish people identify me at once as a Yankie – I’ve been told I sound Catalan, Scottish, South African and the like. What identifies Americans is their insistence in pronouncing certain sounds just as they would in English, hard [d] sounds and sissy [s] sounds along with using diphthongs and triphthongs instead of the nice, clean, clear vowel sounds that are limited to five in Spanish. I respect the articulation of Spanish sounds, which helps, but does not remove my accent.
When asked why I don’t work on my own accent in Spanish, I first say that I have (I would never pronounce a written “d” as a [d] – I always pronounce it like the English [th] as is the custom here in Spain). I then say that having the accent that I have is important to my identity. Though my personality has evolved through using Spanish as a way of communicating my thoughts, thinking like the Spanish instead of like the English or Americans, I am not Spanish and don’t pretend to be. My accent indicates that I am an immigrant, a resident but still a respectful guest.
My accent also makes me exotic. It gives me leeway. I can say things a Spanish person would not dare say, in any dialect of Castilian Spanish, and I can get away with it with a simple “I’m American, in my language we can say those things.” So when I say “yerna” instead of “nuera”, everyone understands where it came from and we all get a good laugh out of it.