“Hope you don’t mind me asking, but where are you from?” I was being served in an IKEA restaurant and had just asked my father in German how many kötbullar he wanted. “Germany”, I replied. “Really? You don’t sound German. My boss is from Germany and you don’t sound anything like him.”
Fast forward a couple of years. I was just taking off for a walk along the Chester Canal when an elderly man, sitting on a bench in the sunshine, started a conversation. I was probably the only living person he had seen in the last couple of hours so he was quite keen. After we had established that it was a nice day for a walk, where I was heading (including a recommendation for a good pub on my way), and where we were living he said: “So where are you from? You don’t sound Welsh.” When I told him, he seemed surprised. “Oh, you don’t sound like that either. I can usually tell where people are from but you really got me there.”
I tend to take it as a compliment as I’m not too keen on the German stereotype of having a bad or non-existent “th” and a hard pronunciation. But is it?
The UK has a surprising variety of English accents and dialects, considering that it is a relatively small country (no offense). I will never forget my first phone call from a Scottish client at work. My hands began sweating because I was struggling to understand him and didn’t want to sound dumb by asking him to repeat every other sentence. Or the first time I watched a DVD by a Liverpudlian comedian. I had to watch it twice to get every joke. And there are moments when I do feel for American guests on British TV chat shows, seated in between British guests and not always having a clue what’s going on. And it’s supposed to be their native language. So forgive me if I, too, wear a blank expression on my face every now and again.
Maybe it is a compliment and just means that I’m spoiled for choice and can’t decide which one to adopt. Could even be a missed opportunity, I mean how often do you read in interviews that movie stars get dialect coaches. Maybe I should offer a ‘non-dialect’ service? Or, as another client put it recently, it’s just time they sent me back home for a couple of weeks so I get my accent back.