I distinctly remember my dad imitating Mike Myers’s hilarious Scottish accent from Shrek when I was a kid, and being totally shocked.
“Wait! How did you do that?”
I was gobsmacked.
He sounded exactly like the character from the film. He sounded Scottish! Thereafter I vowed I would do the same imitation someday, and started imitating my father imitating Shrek; and imitating other TV characters too — Mater from Cars, Steve Martin in Pink Panther, and Bear Grylls from Man vs. Wild.
Eventually, I started to get good at it. I could even listen to a song and imitate the singer (though my rap career never took off, I still do a fairly good Akon impression).
It’s something I always found fascinating, the way other people spoke. The fact that English alone has something over 100 dialects is astounding to me now — let alone to a kid trying to figure out why someone on TV talked differently than mom and dad.
I was living in a city with people from all over the world, and being from Newfoundland originally, I had a lot of exposure to the different ways people talk!
One thing stood out to me though — these different ways of speaking, were actually all the same. They were really just sounds. And I started to realise when trying to imitate someone, that I actually already naturally used a lot of the sounds coming out of their mouth; I just needed to work on a few extra ones.
I fully attribute this fascination with accents with opening up the world of languages to me. Because I worked on imitating other English speakers from such a young age, it later came naturally to imitate non-English speakers as well.
I studied French in tenth grade via correspondence. I should have failed. No teacher in the room…no one to sit with me and help me perfect my pronunciation. But all those years of mimicking people on the TV or on the street came in handy.
I could listen to the course tape and repeat back what the instructor was saying exactly. I was ecstatic. I was learning a new way to communicate, and it was extremely satisfying when — like with a new accent — I nailed the delivery and felt confident in what I was saying.
Though I put French on pause for quite a few years after my initial baptism, my love of languages and dialects never stopped increasing. I went off to university and made friends from different parts of the English-speaking world and continued to imitate them. I made friends with people from non-English speaking parts of the world and they taught me words in their native tongue. But it was only after a bit of globe-trotting around Europe following my undergrad that I really started to unlock languages.
Going from France to Germany, to Greece, and later, to Italy — it really started to click for me. “These all sound kind of the same!”
Now while a keen listener will pick up the differences between all these languages without even knowing them; there was a real truth to this idea that suddenly unlocked every language in the world for me.
I’m no philologist or linguist, but it was plain to me that all of the sounds we humans use to communicate (apart perhaps from those Kalahari Bushmen) are common to each other. Sure, there might be a rolled “r” here or a harsh “kh” sound there— but they’re not impossible to replicate.
I stopped looking at words on a page quite a while ago when I wanted to learn something (though I still work on my grammar and vocabulary online or on paper at times). Instead, I find a native speaker of the language I’m after and simply ask them “Tell me how to say ____”.
They nearly always oblige and get excited when I want to learn.
Languages are the key to truly knowing and experiencing another culture, and the joy and understanding that comes from communicating with someone in their native tongue is something we English speakers far too often take for granted.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
— Nelson Mandela
We just need to get out of our comfort zone a little bit — and risk sounding silly. Nobody’s Irish accent is spot-on the first time they try it, and it’s embarrassing when we mess it up in front of others. But we have to get over that — because the people that want to teach you their language already have! It’s something they understand completely, having had to learn English as their second, or sometimes even third language.
I now speak intermediate French, basic Italian, and know phrases in Greek, Farsi, Polish, and Mandarin. And though it seemed daunting when people told me how difficult it would be to learn some of these languages, the principles for me were always the same. “Tell me how to say ____” and imitate. All I needed to do after was practice and commit those words to memory.
I promise you, if you can do this, then learning a language will be as easy for you as anything else you learn in life.