Having an Accent in the US

By Billy Pierre, Staff Writer

I’m Bidi Pirra and I must thank Starbucks for this new name. No, it’s not surprising at all to have your name written wrong when you go to the most popular coffee shop in America, but it’s hard to imagine that they could distort my name at this level. Nor should we believe that baristas do not know how to spell names. The stores are often quite noisy anyway, and for the sake of serving us in a timely manner, spelling our names right is not on the top of the list of priorities. This is at least my way of understanding most of the spelling errors at the coffee shop. 

When I walked in the store a few months ago, I decided to use my last name instead of my first name.  My first name should have been much easier to write, since my last name is French. It’s like I wanted to give a hard time to this young barista. She gave me exactly what I was looking for: Pirra. However, it was not as shocking as it was when another barista misspelled my first name. She wrote it as Bidi. I wondered if my accent was that terrible. How could she have heard that? I do not doubt that my accent is difficult to understand sometimes. But Billy is a very common American name. I would have understood that someone could write it as Billie, but not at all Bidi. That was not even close. Like the first time, I immediately took a picture and shared it with my friends, of course with the hashtag #NotMyName. They could not believe their eyes. Today, some still make fun of me by calling me Bidi.

These two rather amusing experiences at Starbucks are rather an opportunity to reminds us of our identity as well as to reveal it to others. One of the key elements of our identity is in the languages we speak. In my case, being from Haiti, the first two languages I learned were Haitian Creole and French. In Haiti, everyone speaks Creole. It’s the mother tongue. French is learned in school. In other words, everyone speaks Creole at home, but most teaching is done in French, depending on the skill level of your teachers. This explains why, for the most part, it is always easier for me to write in French than in any other language, even if the language in which I am more comfortable, in terms of oral communication, will always remain Creole. Maybe it’s because all the textbooks I read during my academic journey were in that language? When I explained this to my new friend, we referenced the phrase ‘language of creativity’.

When I arrived in the United States for the first time, it was at that moment that the notion of accent made sense in my head. Before, it was simply a question of pronunciation. Nothing more. Now, I must live with the idea that I have a French accent. Ironically, when I visited France last year, my local friend and her family told me that I speak French with an American accent.

Having a foreign accent can be an asset. In fact, quite often, it can be a real icebreaker. It’s enough that when I say “hello” to someone so that they immediately notice that I have an accent. In most cases, this person becomes interested in my story. “Where do you come from?” “Ah, Haiti …the earthquake!…”  And the questions keep coming. If you like talking about your country as I do, this may be a good way to make new friends.

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