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There’s this thing that happens quite a lot in Chile, when people hear an English speaker speaking Spanish, they respond, usually among their group, not to the foreigner in question, by exaggerating an English/American/gringo accent in Spanish. You know, the one where cappuccino sounds like “kappa-CHEE-now.” And yes, I know that’s not really what we sound like, but that’s what they think we sound like, which is the important part.

I often mused to some of my fellow teachers (when I used to be a teacher, many years ago), that if folks wanted to improve their American-sounding accent in English, they should apply the same exaggerated accent when speaking English. Kind of like how when I was in Tokyo, in an Amazing Race-style sprint to find the overnight bus to Kyoto on the outskirts of a vast train station, no amount of “doko” (where) was going to get me there, until I emulated as best as I could a more Japanese intonation. Which unfortunately brought torrents of Japanese words, none of which I could understand other than basu (bus) and Kyoto. This, however, is another story.

But it got me to thinking. What does English sound like to Spanish-speakers? When I was a kid, I had an imaginary language that my Play Family Little People spoke to each other. It was heavy in Bs and Ks, which now that I think about it, might sound a little like a chicken bok-boking. Who knows where I got it. I was exposed to some non-English when I was a kid, mostly Yiddish, Russian, Italian and Spanish (this last one mostly on television).

But what does “pretend English” sound like to Chileans? I was walking down the street one day with a friend, when someone took his “pretend gringoness” to the next level, and started actually imitating me as I spoke, in a voice loud enough for me to hear.

So I whirled around, turned my voice recorder on, and asked if he’d do it again. I wanted to record what it sounded like when Chileans imitate English. Or more accurately, what it is they think they hear. The sound file is below:

The conversation starts off with me asking him if he’ll continuing imitating me, and then a discussion of what to call “talking nonsense” in Spanish. Puro camelo, he suggests, and I suggest chaumullo. At any rate, he gets to it, and I start asking him questions in English, which he doesn’t understand, and he interrupts me and talks in his pretend English, as though he’s answering the questions. I then noticed he was using a more male voice, and mine is female, so I asked him to imitate a woman. There he admitted his inspiration was movies from the 70s, and spoke in a higher pitch with a more lilting rhythm. I break character in no uncertain way, laughing out loud, thank him and ask him his name, and make a quick joke about how his name is Camilo (a name), not camelo (meaning nonsense).

It made me wonder if I sound like a drunken German-Chinese speaker every time I open my mouth in Chile to those who don’t speak English. But that guy made my day, and coming across this sound file again several months later made my weekend.

And it’s all because I was looking for the sounds of the Santiago metro. Se anuncia la cierre de puertas.

Doors closing.