How to Sound Foreign, etc.


News reached us yesterday of a dazzling metamorphosis, a case of so-called Foreign Accent Syndrome. A middle-aged woman visits her dentist for the removal of several teeth. She steps into the fog of anaesthesia a native of Bloomington, Illinois and an hour later emerges a native of someplace between London and Dublin. Such cases, we’re assured, are not unknown to medical science. But if I know you, dear reader, the story percolated through your brain overnight and you woke this morning with a single, desperate question: “Where can I get a surgery like that?” You always wanted to sound foreign.

First things first. Before your insurer will agree to cover the surgery you’ll need a diagnosis. Talk to your doctor. An aural examination may identify you as a sufferer (for example) from Francopenia, Italopenia, or Moldopenia – that is, the condition of sounding insufficiently French, Italian, or Moldovan. Verbal pathologies like these are surprisingly common and generally picked up in childhood. Chances are that you suffer from more than one of them. Your doctor may be kind enough to offer a list of diagnostic alternatives. Choose one based on the deficiency you most want corrected.

Depending on your diagnosis, the procedure will vary in degree of invasiveness and unpleasantness, as well as recovery time. Correction of Francopenia, for example, falls on the relatively pleasanter side of things, entailing the intentional surgical deviation of the septum (assuring a nasal affect) and three weeks of intensive tube feeding on cream-based sauces, butter-cooked gastropods, and (naturellement!) pâté de foie gras. At-home recovery involves a month-long immersion in the music of Serge Gainsbourg and the dueling filmographies of Truffaut and Godard.

If, however, you are ill-starred enough to suffer from Russopenia (sounding insufficiently Russian), expect something more trying. Pre-surgical prep requires three months subsistence on a liquid diet of second-quality vodka and smoked tea. Then your abdomen is opened and stuffed with beets while your liver is removed, marinated in more vodka, and laid open to the abuse of a bare-fisted Cossack boxer who pummels it for three successive days. The poor defeated organ is finally set on fire and doused with sooty Moscow snow before being replaced. Successful treatment of Russopenia may reduce your life expectancy by one third.

There are other pathological possibilities. My wife, for instance, suffers from a condition not listed in any diagnostic manual: she’s often mistaken for being foreign though she has no accent at all. She seems to give off a sort of audio displacement field that steals brief snippets of verbal output from conversations no doubt occurring, in real time, on other continents. Or it may be that she’s perfectly well but those mistaking her for a foreigner (grocery store employees, mostly) suffer from a disorder that makes them hear accents where there are none.

He may blush at my sharing it, but as a kid my brother had a bad case of Logorrhea. Our parents never brought him in for a syllabectomy; I suppose they hoped he’d grow out of it. Anyway, it’s a fairly common condition, as you’ll know if you’ve ever taken public transport or watched a televised presidential debate. Poor little guy. Classmates were always quoting Run DMC at him (“You talk too much, homeboy, you never shut up”), and the fact that he had a voice like Linus from Peanuts didn’t help things. I admit that I was a talky kid too, but my brother’s verbal incontinence was truly astounding: morning to night his whole day was one long messy vowel movement.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “How to Sound Foreign, etc.

  1. I think this might be my favorite post yet.

    Wife and I are starting first grade homeschooling for our oldest this summer. We were all set on putting our kids in public school but my brother had his in the public elementary school down the road from us this year and it turns out most of the teachers there are Christian Republicans of the Southern Baptist variety. In the strange gothic world of Memphis this school is among those targeted by the SBC mega-church in Memphis, and a bunch of their faithful came to our public elementary school to enlighten us poor folk. I may be among the handful of homeschoolers in TN who pulled his kids out of the public school system because he was afraid of conservative political indoctrination.

    But to my point. My wife lived in China in the 90s and speaks Mandarin. So she wants to include Mandarin in the kids’ education. Fine. She is a bit of a masochist. But we also want to include a european language in their course of studies and in our home life, and we had decided upon French, only because that is the european language I know best and who doesn’t want their kid to read French absurdest theatre, but I had been having second thoughts, and this post put all the nails in the coffin. French it will not be.

    My kids owe you a gratitude but will never know it.

  2. Ian Wolcott

    Rather than teach our children foreign languages we should teach them accents. It will get them farther in life and probably prevent all kinds of complicated surgical procedures in the future.

  3. Mimi

    This ranks up there on the brilliance scale for me.

  4. Meghan

    James and I both cracked up reading this (having heard the broadcast on NPR that presumably prompted this). Thanks for a fun interruption from taxes!

  5. Ian Wolcott

    Taxes. I’m sorry.

    Do they actually run NPR broadcasts on the radio in the UK, or were you listening online?

    • Meghan

      The internet is a wondrous thing. I can even get the morning commute traffic news for the bay area here (not that it is terribly exciting).

  6. Ian Wolcott

    Ah, yes. Technology, they call it.

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