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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

An American accent as professional liability

(International Herald Tribune)  An American accent as professional liability.  By Thomas Fuller.  Feburary 10, 2005.

Toomas-Henrik Ilves is a member of the European Parliament who happens to speak with a New Jersey accent.

Ilves spent his formative years in the United States and acquired a fluency in English that served him well for most of his diplomatic and political career, including a stint as foreign minister of his native Estonia.

But since being elected to the European Parliament in June, Ilves says, he has received suspicious looks from some of his European colleagues in Brussels.

"The curious thing is that it's assumed that I'm a hawk on Iraq just because I have this accent," Ilves said. "People say, 'Oh, so you don't support Bush?' Or, 'So you actually do think like a European?"'

Ann Mettler is the executive director of the Lisbon Council, a pressure group that studies ways to make Europe more economically competitive. She is German but spent five years in the United States and has something resembling an American accent, a way of speaking that engenders a mix of curiosity and hostility in Brussels these days, she says.

"There are many times when I hoped I had a different accent," she said. "This is the only way I know how to speak English. I can't help it. But it would really help me if I spoke the tortuous English that other people speak."

Brussels is a place where English has increasingly become the lingua franca, a shift from the earlier days of the European Union when press briefings, political consultations and conferences were held in French.

But these days in Brussels it matters what type of English you speak, according to those who, for reasons of education or because their parents once lived in United States, have acquired American accents.

They make up a tiny portion of the thousands of civil servants, diplomats and politicians who work in Brussels, but the fact that they report increasing levels of suspicion toward their accents seems to signal that the malaise between Americans and Europeans has gone personal.

A Hungarian civil servant who studied in New York and worked in Brussels says her colleagues derisively called her "the American." A Frenchwoman who grew up in the United States and now works in the Brussels bureaucracy says she switches to French to assert her European credentials.

"Europe is full of people who speak two languages without an accent in either one," said Ilves. "That's considered a plus. It's just that if you have an American accent, then there is this association.  If someone has a prejudice against Americans, that's where you get a reaction."

This is the side of Brussels that President George W. Bush will probably not see when he visits later this month: the day-to-day resentment of things American, the slight frown at a dinner party when someone talks about European friendship with the United States, or the smirks at a gathering of European academics when comparisons are made with America.

People interviewed for this column describe it as subtle hostility, a minor annoyance.

It is probably just a footnote to the larger problems that the United States and Europe have encountered in recent years. But does the stigma of the American accent in Brussels and other places in Europe have consequences larger than just awkward moments and hostile looks?

America's desire to attract foreign students comes to mind: The decline in enrollment of foreign students in the United States has mainly been attributed to the tightening of immigration policies. But it is also possible that some students are staying away because the idea of traveling to America is looked down upon by their family and friends.

Not all Europeans with ties to the United States report encountering problems here. Ginte Damusis, the Lithuanian ambassador to NATO, whose family fled Nazi-occupied Europe and lived in the United States for several decades, says she gets compliments for her American-accented English.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm taken more seriously," she said. "I find it as an advantage."

Gijs de Vries, the European Union's antiterrorism coordinator, was born in New York - his father was a representative there for KLM, the Dutch airline - but the family moved back to Europe several years later. His birthplace, he said, has never been an issue. Then again de Vries does not speak with an American accent.

Europe and the United States may have drifted apart in cultural and political domains, de Vries said in a recent interview, but his day-to-day contact with American counterparts has not been affected.

"The fact that we raise our eyebrows mutually on either side of the Atlantic should not prevent us from continuing to have practical cooperation," he said.  Increased levels of human contact between the United States and Europe could help eliminate trans-Atlantic suspicions, he said.  "There are many European parliaments that could benefit today from more person-to-person contact across the Atlantic," he said.

Mettler says the hostility and suspicions she detects when she meets fellow Europeans is a recent thing, a sign of the times. She does not remember having problems with her accent the last time she lived in Brussels, in 1999.

But now, she says, she gets suspicious reactions "all the time."  "When you speak with an American accent there is a certain assumption," she said. "It's not well looked upon."

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