Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What I Learned From Reading

It's tempting to say, "Well, of course, I learned everything from reading," but that wouldn't really be true. I didn't learn to walk by reading, and I didn't learn to play kickball by reading, and, really, I didn't learn most of the stuff I did as a kid from reading. But there are some significant things I did learn from reading.

For example, I learned to read by reading. And I see some of you looking at me funny, now, but just give me a moment. See, there was this book that my mom used to read to me when I was a kid. It was some kind of counting book, and, no, I don't remember the name of it, but I did, at the time, memorize it. So, one day, I was sitting there on my bed, and I was looking at the book and reciting it as I turned the pages, and I had an epiphany: the words I was saying matched the words in the book. I remember very clearly working out that first sentence and matching the words and remembering them. I was three or, maybe, just turned four. But I figured out the reading thing by sitting down and doing it and was a pretty advanced reader by the time I started kindergarten.

Also, I learned to question things from reading. Granted, I did have some help from a couple of really excellent teachers with that, but "The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson, had a huge influence on me in that regard. There was an almost tangible realization that those in authority over us could tell us to do bad things, and I learned that "why?" is a powerful word.

So, yeah, I could talk about all sorts of things like that and about facts and points of view and that I'm not the only one from planet Xenon (which is a story for another time), but, instead, I'll say the most significant thing I learned from reading is how to talk. And, yes, I could talk before I could read, so let me explain.

I am from the South. The deep South. I was born in Texas and grew up in Louisiana. People from the South speak in a particular way. I do not speak that way; I do not have a Southern accent. My family does. All my friends I grew up with do, but, somehow, I do not.

Of course, I didn't realize I lacked an accent until I was in college, but, hold on, we're not quite there, yet. When I was in high school, I was in a play; it was a melodrama, and I played a country sheriff. A country sheriff with an accent. The fact that I had to have a coach to help me speak my lines with a Southern accent should have been a clue to me that there was something going on, but I didn't clue in. I mean, no one had ever said anything to me about me talking differently, so I didn't notice that I did. This thing with the play was the first time anything about how I talked came up, but, I guess, everyone was just used to how I talked, so no one said, "Hey, why don't you have an accent?" so I didn't think about it.

One of my best friends in high school was born in Vietnam. He moved to Detroit when he was around seven and to Louisiana when he was in middle school. English being a second language for him, he had an accent. Not a Southern one. Yet. When we were in college, he and I took a road trip to visit his childhood friends in Detroit (and see some other parts of the US, but Detroit was the first stop). My friend was going to school in Texas (A&M) and had quickly picked up the distinctive Texas twang. Even I had noticed and had kidded him about it, because it was kind of amusing to hear his developing Texas accent over his Vietnamese accent. Anyway, we got up to Detroit and his friends were having a big party-ish thing for him, and they were making fun of his Texan thing when, kind of suddenly, they all turned on me (seriously, it was like six or seven of them at once) and said, "Where are you from?"

Theoretically, they knew where I was from. They knew my friend and I had gone to high school together and that we were both in college in Texas. They knew I was from the South. So I was like, "Texas..." And they said, "No, where did you grow up?" And I said, "Louisiana." And they said, "No, where were you born?" And I said, "Texas." And they said, "No, where did you live when you were a kid?" And I said, "Louisiana." And they did not believe me.

Basically, according to them, I had no accent. None of them could place where I was from, and I had to show them my driver's license for them to even believe I lived in the South, but I don't think any of them believed I grew up there. My friend had this Texas thing going after being there only about a year, but I had nothing. After we got back from the trip was the first time I noticed that the people I went to school with all had accents.

But I still didn't realize the extent to which I didn't have an accent. I mean, I still just sounded like me to me, and my family all sounded the same and all of that. It wasn't until my wife met my family that I discovered just how much I don't talk like them. My wife could barely understand them. Actually, she couldn't understand about 75% of what my brother said and kept having to ask me to translate. Needless to say, I found that quite amusing.

All of that to say that the only thing that set me apart when I was a kid, from everyone but, specifically, from my family (them being the biggest influence on me and all), was reading. Even when I was in elementary school and my highest priority was playing outside with my friends, I still spent hours every night reading. When I got to fifth grade and got transferred to another school for the gifted/talented program and had to ride the bus everyday, my reading increased and, again, in middle school where I tended to read myself through my classes. The only explanation I have for my lack of accent is that I read so much that I actually picked up my speech patterns from the books I read not from the people around me.

And that's what I learned from reading.

21 comments:

  1. I had to laugh at this post. I was born and raised in West Virginia where our language is considered Appalachian. Now they didn't tell us this in school. I learned that years later. It has been years ago but for all my life I didn't know I had an accent. I couldn't hear it when I talk (I still have yet to figure that out) so I didn't think I talked any different. We were on vacation to the eastern shore and a shop keeper went ga ga after I asked for something asking questions about where I was from and telling me she loved to hear my accent and I swear I thought I would be in that shop my entire week just talking to her. I was a little freaked out and asked the hubby about it maybe I needed some focus group that concentrated on language. I actually called my cellphone and left a voicemail just to listen to it. It totally freaked me out. That was the first time I had really heard myself talk. I concluded that maybe it is possible that we hear ourselves talk so much we can't hear it? Or maybe it is because of those we associate the closest too we just don't hear it until we actually hear it!

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  2. Not having an accent and being from Texas doesn't surprise me. I grew up in Oklahoma, and a lot of the folks there are accent free depending upon which corner of the state you're from. I lived in Texas the last 7 years and found it to be similar. The accent, and degree of accent, varies greatly from region to region.

    However, I'm impressed by the fact you spent so much time in Louisiana and didn't pick up the twang. I've known people who lived there only a short time and now sound like they're from another planet. LOL

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  3. LOL! Yeah, I can understand. I chuckle when one of my close friends breaks into speaking West Virginian, or when my southern pals breaks out some...uh...southernisms. NYC was super interesting too, but having grown up in the West, my hubby and I are essentially accent-less. Glad I didn't have to learn that from reading. ;)

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  4. G_G: That's part of what makes it so interesting: Everything just sounds normal to us until we're presented with something different. But I knew about accents when I went to Detroit; it just didn't occur to me that I didn't sound like everyone else from where I was from.

    E.J.: I lived in Louisiana until I was 27. The only other place I spent time was Texas. Virtually everyone I knew had an accent. There's no good reason for me not to have one. Except for reading.

    Crystal: Actually, I think it's kind of funny that we have all of these regional accents but it's the west and mid-west that we consider accent-less. heh

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  5. That's an interesting theory. May apply to me in some ways as well.

    I took one of those "where you from" language tests recently. Since it was online it didn't so much judge my accent as much as the words and idioms I use. The test pinpointed me as being from the Lubbock, TX area. Funny. I was born in Ohio, spent a few childhood years in San Diego, Jr Hi in Northern Indiana, and HS and college in East Tenn. For a while I used to have more of a East TN accent, but not really. Now I don't know if what I learned by reading or from the media.

    But yes, I learned a lot from reading. Reading is like second hand experience. Life through the eyes of another. But a lot of life is kind of second hand even when we're there.

    Lee
    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out

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  6. By the way, did you know you have that annoying Word Verification activated on this blog?

    Lee
    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out

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  7. That's strange how reading influenced your speech more than the people around you! I'm from the Midwest, which supposedly doesn't have a distinct accent.

    Arlee, I thought we had that turned off; this is the first I've heard of it. Sorry for the inconvenience. I'll change the settings right now.

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  8. That is interesting about the accent. I wonder if reading with a certain "voice" in your head would do it. I know when I'm writing (my Welsh stories) I think in a British-ish accent. :)

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  9. Lee: I took one of those. Unlike everyone else I know here, who got at least one of their places as the place they were actually from, I did not. Also, their three places tended to be a fairly tight group of cities; mine were not. All three of mine were in the South, but they were very spread out, hundreds of miles in between. It was interesting.

    Sandra: It is. I suppose I was in my head too much? I don't know...

    L.G.: I looked for studies on the subject at one point but couldn't find anything. I suppose it's not something happens often enough for there to be a good reason for people to wonder about it. Well, except people like me.

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  10. I"m almost positive my daughter read "The Lottery" last year. I'll have to ask her. It just sounds really familiar.

    My accent is still primarily a NY accent. At least that's what I'm told. But, my time in LA took a bit of the edge off.

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  11. Elsie: It's a great story. You should read it. It might disturb you, though.

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  12. I think that no accent tends to be influenced by that Midwestern patois (ugh. Did I just type that word? I just checked - I did) that most of us tend to think of as accentless. I think that way. But when I was a kid I tried my best to not sound like the folks around me. My father and father haven't got a noticeable accent. But I've noticed that people around here think I have no accent at all - but when I travel people are usually able to identify me as southern. I'm okay with that. It's that whiney sound I'm more concerned with.

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  13. I rarely had anyone comment on the way I talked while I lived in LA and TX; I suppose I did have a few people ask me where I was from. It wasn't until people elsewhere couldn't identify me as being from the South that I really noticed anything.
    It's weird.

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