Michael Daniel: Learning to speak Catholic with an accent

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Catholicism seems natural to cradle Catholics but for converts it still requires learning a new vocabulary - and then making it theirs.
Catholicism seems natural to cradle Catholics but for converts it still requires learning a new vocabulary – and then making it theirs.

I speak the language of Catholicism with an accent.

A highly contested construct in second language learning is that of the ‘native speaker’/’native proficiency.’ Often people are employed as teachers to second language learners of a language such as English, on the basis that they are native speakers.

The presumption is that the native speaker’s command of the target language is better than that of the second language speaker. The stereotype of the second language speaker of English – one who has limited vocabulary, whose knowledge of the grammar is deficient, and who speaks with a distinct accent – is not always the case.

I recall, for example, when I was at school that one of the masters who had the best knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary was our Russian master who came to Australia in his 50s.

It was only his distinctive accent that underscored his non-English speaking origins.

Whilst a second language learner’s knowledge of grammar and vocabulary may be flawless, it is generally the case that if a person acquires a language after puberty, they invariably speak it with a distinct accent.

I have, for example, a friend in his 60s who originally came from northern England who migrated with his family to Australia when he was 11, and who generally speaks in a broad Australian accent.

By contrast his older siblings all speak with a distinct ‘Geordie’ accent.

In the case of second language learners – particularly those who acquire excellent proficiency in their second language, and speak it without a distinct accent or pronunciation – the distinction between them and a native speaker is often more subtle.

If they acquired the language comparatively late, they often find that they have to spend longer thinking about how to phrase certain statements.

So how does all this discussion about second language acquisition relate to converts? Many of the parallels are striking.

If a acquired the language comparatively late, a person often finds that they have to spend longer thinking about how to phrase certain statements. This is true for converts.
If a person acquires a second language comparatively late, they often discover the need to spend longer thinking about how to phrase certain statements. This is also true for converts.

In some instances, people will admit upfront that they are converts. However, even when meeting people who have been – like myself – a Catholic for decades, there are often obvious clues that someone is a convert to Catholicism, particularly if they belong to certain generations.

For example, in conversations about schooling with people who are my age or older, people mention the antics of nuns, brothers or priests who taught them; whereas, I relate vignettes about the masters who taught me.

In other instances, in conversations with Catholics the names of schools at which people were educated are mentioned, and people who do not know I am a convert are at a loss to understand initially why I was educated at an Anglican boys’ school.

Similarly, discussions about one’s first communion and confirmation are likewise a point at which my convert status is revealed, as those raised Catholic receive them a lot younger than the age of 20, the age at which I entered the Church.

There are often other clues. A convert may know more about Church teachings, history, lives of the saints etc than many of his contemporaries.

Even when talking with those well versed in the faith, extensive references to scripture passages are often a giveaway – the stereotype that Protestants know their Bibles whereas Catholics do not is not always entirely without substance.

Often this is accompanied by the convert quoting scripture from a translation that Catholics do not immediately recognise – in the case of a quote from the King James Bible (which this author still refers to as the ‘Authorised Version’ – another giveaway) some cradle Catholics are understandably left completely bewildered.

Some of the other clues can be more subtle; yet, even after decades of being a Catholic there are still tangible signs to the astute observer.

For example, there is still the tendency for me to default into using phrases of common prayers from The Book of Common Prayer (1662), such as “the quick and the dead” instead of “the living and the dead”; and, “the remission of sins” instead of “forgiveness of sins” when reciting the Nicene Creed at Mass.

My pronunciation of certain liturgical words has a distinctive Anglican sound to it, in particular the way I pronounce ‘holy’; indeed, certain family members tell me that my accent generally becomes noticeably more formal when I recite the responses and prayers at Mass.

Even converts who learn and use accurately the current translations of liturgical and devotional texts sometimes give off a ‘sixth sense’ that their background is not Catholic, perhaps through their body language.

A marked version of the Holy Bible.
Often a convert quotes scripture from a translation that Catholics do not immediately recognise – in the case of a quote from the King James Bible. Cradle Catholics can be completely bewildered.

Recently I was talking with a colleague who is a cradle Catholic.

Having never had a conversation about religion with him all the years we had worked together he was surprised to learn I was a Catholic, and always assumed by the way I conducted myself and my overall demeanour, that I was an Anglican.

Thus, even after all these decades there was something intangible that still lingered. I have therefore come to accept that despite being a Catholic for well over more than half of my life, I speak the language of Catholicism with an accent, to use the analogy of learning a second language.

Whilst this analogy works well on so many levels, there is one where it falls down, and that is on the level that is perhaps at the heart of a conversion.

Conversion to Catholicism involves accepting not only what the Church teaches, but its authority to teach.

Earlier I mentioned that the biggest challenge a second language speaker faces is thinking instinctively in their new language.

However, at the heart of conversion to Catholicism is the concept of sentire cum ecclesia, namely, ‘thinking with the church’; that is, having the mindset that the Church can and has taught definitively over the centuries on the Deposit of Faith.

Whereas in language acquisition many second language learners never learn fully how to think instinctively in their target language, sentire cum ecclesia is THE prerequisite for a conversion to Catholicism.

I would suggest that whilst on many levels it takes a life time for both converts and cradle Catholics to learn how to ‘think with the Church’ – particularly in the current age when cultural forces cause many to doubt not only Church teachings but the Church’s competence or even right to teach the truth – most converts I know do not enter the Church until they accept its claims to teach with authority, even if it takes them years or decades to arrive at this position.

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