Post 162

Pardon Me? Reflections on Understandability at Mass

English is a nice language. It’s got a lot of words.

It is widely known and countries that have a primary language other than English often have a population that is quite familiar with English as its favourite most useful second language.

Spoken English sounds very different in different parts of the world. The English you hear spoken in Bangkok is different than the English you hear spoken in Santiago or in Ottawa or in Edinburgh.

A person’s ability to speak English is affected by several factors. One factor is that person’s mother tongue. If a person’s first language does not have a “th” sound, for instance, then it will be difficult, initially, to say English words that contain the “th” sound. Some Asian languages have a blended r-l sound, so it is difficult for those speakers to make a clear “r” sound or a clear “l” sound. They always mix in a little of the other letter.

On the other hand, if your first language has flourishes that do not occur in English, you may tend to import the flourish with the letter. Here I am thinking of the rolled “r” which is common in many languages. When a speaker from France sees the letter “r,” he is tempted to roll it.

When those from other countries arrive in Canada, their accent will often be quite heavy; it’s easy to tell that this person has only recently arrived on Canadian soil. In large urban centre, it’s common to meet many people who speak English with a non-Canadian accent.

But the immigrant’s accent begins to fade away and be replaced by the Canadian version, the version we all use regardless of where we or our ancestors came from. For much of Canada, that version would be represented by the news anchors on national TV. The speed of the adaptation varies, depending on the amount of interaction the immigrant has with other Canadians.

It is a natural process; we all tend to absorb the accents of the speakers around us. We adapt, both deliberately and unconsciously. And that’s good because it allows us to understand each other better.

But during the process of adapting to the English language or even just the Canadian accent, some new immigrants choose to become lectors at the local parish. This is a delicate and complicated topic, but I think it’s fair to say as a starting point that it’s always an honour to serve at Mass in any capacity. It’s a big responsibility to do the readings, and when the congregation can’t understand the readings, something’s amiss.

After all, the local news station wouldn’t allow the weather report to be delivered with any accent that isn’t completely understandable, and we would scratch our heads in stunned disbelief if we heard the commentator for the hockey game speaking with a thick Swedish or Singaporean accent.

So why do we act like it really doesn’t matter how intelligible the readers are for the Mass? Readers and cantors for Mass should be easy to understand, end of story. If someone is eager to volunteer but cannot be easily and completely understood, then she should choose a different ministry, such as being an usher or an acolyte. There are usually many ways to help at the local parish. The role of lector should be delayed until understandability is achieved. After all, it’s a service — it’s not an opportunity to shine or practice public speaking.

Priests: Imports and Exports

And on this note, I actually oppose the worldwide movement and migration of priests. I don’t think it’s right for priests to leave their homelands to be transplanted elsewhere. At minimum, I would say that it shouldn’t be happening to the extent that it currently is. My thought is that something which began as an understandable missionary impulse has now gotten quite out of hand.

If country A isn’t generating enough priests, then let country A deal with the shortfall; don’t import priests from country B as if country B is a stop-gap supplier.

Why does Canada get to import priests from Nigeria, Poland and the Philippines in the same way it imports everything else? How is it that we take them so easily from the world that they know?

Isn’t it the case that they could be put to very good use in their countries of origin? I believe they would be more effective when they are anchored in amongst friends, neighbours, and family members. Their energies would not be spent on adapting to a foreign language and culture. When they arrive in a foreign nation, they are in charge of a parish which has challenges that are daunting for anyone, let alone someone who is so easily dismissed as an outsider. From what I can tell, people who are paid to work in parish offices tend to close ranks against priests whom they view as different or difficult to control. In general, I think that the parish office environment is usually toxic because workers portray themselves as holy and selfless while really being there for the money and playing politics to have themselves valued and preferred ahead of their coworkers, so there’s a level of falsity that you don’t encounter with other jobs. They’re a cut-throat bunch. Will they be empathetic towards the confused new priest who spends hours upon hours redrafting his homily, hoping to be able to pronounce all the words for his new flock? I don’t think so, though they’ll make a show of respect if it helps with the advancement of their position.

It’s just not ideal. That’s all I’m saying.

As for the flock, they aren’t as appreciative as they could be of the sacrifices made by their new shepherd. Some are genuinely friendly to the new priest, some are falsely friendly, and some are entirely cold, but the vast majority are just finding that here’s another priest whose homily they cannot quite follow, because they can’t understand the words when spoken with that unfamiliar accent.

One of the worst accents I have ever heard was from a priest who was originally from Poland but who learned English in Scotland and then ultimately wound up in Canada. Few could understand a word that he said. But put that same priest back in Poland, and every riddle would be solved; every line would make sense.

As for those priests already relocated and swimming upstream, my advice would be to focus on helping the parishioners with your ideas and words. Too many foreign-language priests tend to make up for their English language deficiency by making their homilies formal as well as long. They seem to be eager to prove that their intellects are in full force and effect, and the congregation becomes bleary-eyed as the paragraphs stretch and the pages turn.

It’s not the way. Think and pray about what the congregation needs to hear right now, and then God will inspire you. Get straight to the point; the target is the heart and mind of the parishioner. If you are direct and your intentions are good, then language barriers will fall away: instead of being a hindrance to understanding, your accent will add flair to the message.

That English Accent

My least favorite accent, on Canadian soil, is the English accent, believe it or not.

It’s an accent which I find entirely fine in England. Chesterton had an English accent, and so did some of my ancestors.

Here in Canada, however, I have noticed the strangest phenomenon. I find it to be so often the case that those with English accents never lose them. Their accents don’t soften and blend into the Canadian. Long after the accent of the German, the Chilean, and the Vietnamese have mellowed, the English person sounds like he arrived the day before yesterday.

So my theory is that something different is happening, and indeed, here is my charge: I think that far too many immigrants from England have an attitude about their accent, and the attitude is one of superiority. It seems to me that they most definitely don’t want to sound like the Canadians around them, ever. Their dislike of the Canadian accent drives their determination to keep their English one. It’s an accent that, to me, suggests an intention to stay aloof, to stay ‘better,’ and of course, that’s worse.