Back in the early 1940s - at Anna B. Lacey Grammar School - I remember one day that the whole student body was herded into the auditorium for a special chapel program - a very common occurrence in that day. After the Sousa march ended, and after the flag salute, Mrs. Ethel Stroud, principal, introduced the speaker, and from that moment on - for the next ten or fifteen minutes we understood ... nothing! A gentleman made a very dynamic-seeming speech, waving his arms, and excitedly speaking his mind, but we looked at each other in dismay, for we understood not one word! The gentleman was a white man, supposedly speaking English, but it certainly was not OUR brand of English.
Some time later we understood that the man was from South Africa, which does, indeed, have a type of English all its own. More recently, I have listened with interest when a known South African is talking on radio or TV, and wondered why we had so much trouble understanding that speaker at our school...
But it was my very first experience with any foreign accent - and it created an interest in me which has lasted to this day. I began to realize that the South African accent was only one of many, and that every nationality has its own set of identifiable characteristics which distinguish one from the other. Some of the old radio shows drew much of their energy from foreign accents, and one actor, especially, was extremely well-skilled in performing a wide variety of them. He was J. Carroll Naish, who did a radio show for a long time called, "Life With Luigi", where he played a newly arrived Italian immigrant, and then was in movies where he played opposite Stewart Grainger as a French Canadian. Later, in early TV, Sid Caesar was equally adept with many foreign accents which could make anyone laugh. Mel Blanc was another wizard with foreign accents, as in Disney productions, and on the Jack Benny radio shows. (One of his then-hilarious lines was, "Pardon me for talking in your face, senorita", spoken with a strong Spanish accent).
But that was "back then", and the world has changed a lot in the interim. "Back then" accents were very rare - at least here in our part of the south. Nowadays a foreign accent is no longer able to attract much attention, let alone make us laugh. Nowadays they are so common - most notably in ethnic restaurants and specialty shops of various kinds - that they have lost all their punch. We hear them all the time and they no longer leap out at us.
But not for me! I am still attracted by a beautifully spoken foreign accent, and several years ago was much smitten by the pronunciations I heard while working at READ of Chattanooga. Some Serbian immigres spoke their (already) excellent English with positively delightful accents. And I have heard Eastern Europeans, most notably Russians, whose creative use of English was most pleasant to hear. I still turn my head when I hear English spoken that way, and once, while living in Philadelphia, remember being inside a Chinese shop when suddenly I was hearing GERMAN being spoken loud and clear (yes, foreign languages have always intrigued me as well). Turning to see who might be speaking German so clearly inside a Chinese shop, I could not believe my eyes (or ears) when the speakers turned out to be a family of Chinese!
All of the above was a kind of prelude to the next part of my story, and please do not get excited because I have seemingly changed horses in mid-stream! The pieces DO fit! For it was in about 1960 or 1961 that a Dr. Frank Laubach came to Chattanooga with the simple message: "Each one help one". He was referring to reading, in particular. Illiteracy was a big problem at that time, much as it remains today, yet he had supposedly learned a "proven" way to overcome it by the simple method of letting those who "know" teach those who "don't know". (A radical idea, is it not?) Dr. Laubach was here for some time, selling his radical idea by appearing on both radio shows and the new black and white TV. His efforts soon led to the founding of that very helpful educational facility in the Eastgate area called, "READ of Chattanooga". His message was that any interested individual could help any other person desiring help, without benefit of a PhD or other fancy degree. Philanthropists Mose and Garrison Siskin endorsed that idea, becoming actively involved with assistance to Laubach in the founding of "READ". The original program was known by the acronym, CALM, standing for the "Chattanooga Area Literacy Movement". Laubach's approach to teaching appealed to me very much and fit in very well with my own miniscule lingusitic sensibilities.
"READ" has been a great boon to our entire local area, helping hundreds of people learn to read and write the English language - a totally gratis service. Many students of Latin descent have availed themselves of READ's free services - sometimes entire families, and also many of our local friends, neighbors, and relatives of whatever race or educational level have studied there to improve their knowledge of both reading and writing.
Anyway, that strange accents I first encountered in the early 1940's at Anna B. Lacey elementary school has led me down some interesting roads, and I hope you enjoyed this story!
(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )