Accents of the English Language

[9 February UPDATE : Denizen, an online magazine by TCKs for TCKs, has published my essay ‘What accent are you?‘ based on this blog post. Check it out!]

I’ve been on a lifelong journey with the English language, going from accent to accent to accent, including some you’ve probably never heard of before. Yes, I’m aware this post doesn’t necessarily pertain to writing, whether my own works or the process, but I figured since I write in English, it would be somewhat appropriate and related (I know, it’s a stretch). This is something constantly on my mind and I’ve had many interesting conversations, and also many discoveries, about accents.

1. Singaporean English (0~14 years old)

I grew up predominantly speaking English despite growing up in Japan as my parents are Singaporean. (English is 1 of the 4 official languages of Singapore among Chinese, Malay, Tamil.) Not to say I didn’t speak Japanese – in fact, if asked what my first language is, it’d be difficult to answer because technically I learnt both English and Japanese at the same time. But my English level is much higher than my Japanese, understandably since Japanese usage was initially limited to Kumon, 3 years of kindergarten and conversations with friends.

Because I spoke English at home and with my parents, I naturally adopted a Singaporean accent. (Just to be clear, this is distinct from Singlish, a colloquial Singaporean English that draws extensively from various languages – English, Malay, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Tamil – and often ignores traditional English grammar rules.) And speaking English in a Singaporean accent is very noticeable. Here’s an entertaining video of a Singaporean White Boy speaking Singlish (the guy host has adopted an American accent while the girl host speaks in a Singaporean accent):

I started attending an international school in Tokyo at the age of 6 where most teachers were from America or Canada. I still remember that day in 4th grade of elementary school when my friend and I were called out of the classroom. We were promptly informed that we were going to receive speech lessons to improve our English pronunciation. My mum, upon hearing this, was furious. Why did her son, who spoke perfectly good English (my English level especially in terms of reading and writing was advanced for my age), need speech lessons?

learning_englishLooking back in hindsight, however, I’m extremely thankful for them. The memory of practising our ‘Rs’, with our tongues curled upward towards the top and back of our mouths, still sticks in my mind. We also practised our ‘th’: many Singaporeans don’t enunciate this properly, so words like ‘three’ are pronounced ‘tree’. This was essentially the first step to acquiring an American accent.

Keep in mind that until I graduated from high school in 2009, not once did I ever consciously consider what accent I spoke English in. A few years ago, my father dug up a video of me speaking animatedly at the age of 12 in my unbelievably high-pitched squeak – and I cringed. Traces of a Singaporean accent was apparent but it wasn’t fully Singaporean; instead, it had been slightly watered down by the American English influences rampant at school, resulting in a weird hybrid of Singaporean and American English.

2. American English (14~20 years old)

It was only in high school when I began acquiring a stronger American English accent. Again, this was totally unconscious on my part. After my high school graduation, and after returning to Singapore to serve my 2 years of military service, I realised just how unpleasing the Singaporean accent was to my ears. (Singlish as well.) Native English speakers who go to Singapore have difficulty understanding their English. I’ve met many people who have thought Singaporeans were speaking, not English, but a completely different language.

I’ve always been an advocate of good English (of course, now I realise standard English and its prescribed rules are a product of Western imperialism, but that’s a different issue) and furthermore, I wanted to be a writer. I decided to refrain at all costs from picking up this disagreeable English by consciously and emphatically speaking in an American accent. (You might find it interesting that the Singaporean government started a campaign in 2000 called ‘Speak Good English Movement‘ to ‘encourage Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English that is universally understood’. I consider myself a proud warrior of said campaign.)

img801

Actual sticky notes created by Speak Good English Movement: the crossed out sentences are in Singlish, followed by corrections.

It’s fascinating how the American and British accents carry with it a connotation of superiority. I maintained my American accent even throughout my 2 years in the army and by doing so, I looked down on everyone else who didn’t speak (what I then considered) ‘proper English’. Ironically, this was an (unfortunate) attitude adopted not just by me but by other Singaporeans. As a lowly recruit who didn’t even have a military rank, it was amusing how whenever sergeants or even officers talked to me, they would switch to ‘proper English’, that is, not Singlish but a grammatically correct English (albeit with a Singaporean accent, usually tinged with Britishisms, Singapore being a former British colony). It almost felt as if they were paying their respects to me, viewing me as more ‘sophisticated’ or ‘higher class’ than everyone else who spoke and cursed in unabashed Singlish.

After my 2 years of military service, I returned to Japan for 10 months to work before my first year of university. I got a job at a Japanese company that sold English learning products and worked as a telephone operator who had English conversations with Japanese customers. The company used an American English, which was perfect considering that was what I spoke. Or so I thought.

I remember talking with one customer, and when I told him that I came from Singapore, he said: ‘Ah, that’s why you don’t speak with an American accent!’

W-wait, what? But I do. It wasn’t long before another customer told me: ‘Your English is so easy to understand! Sometimes I can’t understand what Americans are saying.’ Hmm.

3. British English (20~22 years old)

if-i-had-a-british-accent-i-d-never-shut-up-5In October 2012, I began my life at Durham University as an English Literature student in the UK. Now right before I left, I was slightly anxious, especially regarding the British accent which I revered and desperately wanted to acquire. As I become more serious about literature and my writing endeavours, I realised that as immersed as I had been in American English for many years, it was not the ‘original and pure’ English. Again, the issue of superiority manifested itself this time through my sudden dislike of American English (which is wholly idiotic since it is a form of English that is prevalent, arguably more so than British English) and my immediate embrace of all things British: spellings (e.g. ‘colour’ for ‘color’), grammar (e.g. no oxford commas), etc. And in order to complete my absolute adoption of British English, I felt it necessary to speak in a British accent, the poshest of all accents. (Do forgive me – at that time, I had the misconception that there was only one ‘British accent’.)

But how was I to do that? I had heard stories from American friends who went to the UK with similar intentions but ended up ridiculed as being pretentious. It’s said that British people can immediately spot a foreigner trying to spout a British accent, no matter how authentic that person might believe his accent to be. I’m sure that’s 100% true – it’s the same with Japanese. Slight differences in inflections and tone can easily determine if someone is a native Japanese speaker or not.

Would it be wiser to speak in a forced ‘British accent’ no matter how exaggerated it might be? Or should I maintain my ‘American accent’ (though by this point, I already had slight doubts about whether it truly was) and hope to pick it up naturally?

I went for the former. And thankfully, I was spared the ridicule simply because I looked Asian. To many Caucasians, an Asian-looking person who can speak English fluently is utterly astonishing. Of course, every ‘Your English is so good!’ I replied with a polite ‘Thank you’, though you can’t blame me for wanting to say ‘Yours too!’ (It was much too troublesome to explain on each occasion that English was my first language.) But I used this to my advantage – no matter how atrocious my British accent was, they were bound to overlook it, more taken aback and impressed by how well I could speak English.

It was atrocious. During my first year at university, I was conscious of my accent daily, trying desperately to blend in, listening carefully to what people around me spoke: the differences in pronunciations, commonly-used words and phrases, rising and falling tones and pitches.

When I returned to Japan for the summer holiday after my first year, I switched back to my American accent since that was what my friends in Japan (mostly from my international school) associated with me. But when I met one of my juniors, she exclaimed: ‘I can hear a bit of British in your English!’ Yet this was me speaking in what I thought to be my ‘American accent’ – had some Britishisms seeped in unknowingly?

4. Mid-Atlantic English, aka Transatlantic accent (22~ years old)

British-American flagIt was at the end of that summer of 2013 when I was finally able to put a name to my unique English accent. I was talking on the phone with my father’s American friend in what I deemed to be my American accent. Later, my father told me that his friend had remarked, wholly intrigued: ‘I couldn’t figure out what accent your son was speaking in! It wasn’t American, it wasn’t British… what was it?’ After a bit of research on the internet, I found my accent (or at least the closest technical term): Mid-Atlantic English, aka Transatlantic accent.

This Mid-Atlantic English, according to Wikipedia, is ‘a cultivated or acquired version of the English language once found in certain aristocratic elements of American society and taught for use in the American theatre. It is not a vernacular typical of any location, but rather blends American and British without being predominantly either.’ Apparently, it was popular in Hollywood films from the 1930s to 1960s, and it was spoken by Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn – listen to them in a clip from The Philadelphia Story:

I can hear the blend, especially with Katherine Hepburn, but it wasn’t exactly what I spoke. But the Wikipedia article continues: ‘International media tend to reduce the number of mutually unintelligible versions of English to some extent, and Mid-Atlantic English tends to avoid Britishisms or Americanisms so that it can be equally understandable and acceptable on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.’

This made sense! It’s true that I use both Britishisms and Americanisms, but this was a new perspective: the English accent I spoke at my international school and subsequently coined as an ‘American accent’ was actually a very neutral English accent, without the unique inflections of both American and British Englishes, thus explaining why Japanese people found my English easy to understand. I’ve noticed that international school students often adopt this neutral accent as a compromise between the various accents of English – and also with relation to other languages – one that is able to be used to communicate with a multitude of people.

5. My natural accent? Do I even have one?

So for a quick recap: what I previously considered an ‘American accent’ was a neutral English accent heavily influenced by Americanisms but lacking the inflections that makes an accent sound very American. (I confirmed this after visiting Chicago for a friend’s wedding this past June and noticing my ‘American accent’ sounded nothing like what people there were speaking.) And I regretfully admit that as much as I want to, I will never fully acquire a British accent, simply because I didn’t grow up there. I could potentially get close, but I’ll never be able to speak in a native British accent.

So what is my most natural accent? I don’t even know if I have one. But I guess I’d describe it as a Transatlantic accent, heavily influenced by both Americanisms and Britishisms, and their inflections (though the scale leans a little more to the latter).

Recently, I found a video of Bill Bryson, a best-selling American author who has lived in the UK for more than 20 years, speaking at a lecture hall at Durham University (our library is named after him) and the English he speaks is similar to what I speak (I think):

On another note, Australians have said my accent is similar to theirs, though Brad strongly posits that Australian English is not a confused mix of both British and American English, and whoever thinks so is an idiot.

6. Accents as Languages

Some people have accused me of not staying true to my accent. They don’t understand why my accent is now full of Britishisms when I grew up speaking American English. But the fact of the matter is, I never spoke in a truly American accent. And that’s because my first basic English accent, which serves as the foundation, was a Singaporean accent. It just happened to become more American because of the environment I was in, and is now becoming naturally more British because that’s where I’m living and studying.

I now view English accents as languages themselves. American English, British English, and also Australian English, South African English – these are all different languages. And in a similar manner to how you ought to respect a language of a foreign country when you visit by learning it as best you can, I will change my accents according to who I speak to and where I go. If I’m back with my international school friends in Japan, I speak a neutral English. If I meet Americans, I’ll adopt an American accent. When I’m in the UK, British inflections abound. And the reason is simple: by doing this, I can communicate most effectively with people.

accentsIf I wanted to, I could speak American English while in the UK, or vice versa. But as a TCK, I’d prefer to fit in as much as I can, and if I can prevent having to repeat myself multiple times to a waiter that I want a ‘glass of water’ by saying ‘water’ in an American accent when I’m in America or in a British accent when I’m in the UK, then I’ll do precisely that.

Then ‘what about Singaporean English?’ you may ask. ‘How about Singlish – wouldn’t you consider that a certain form of English, a language by your definition that should be studied and picked up?’

singlish-can

Singlish (left), English (right)

It’s true – I consider Singlish as a language, a certain form of English. I once wrote an essay on World Englishes (which you can read here: The History of the English Language: Story of Power and Emergence of World Englishes), in which I examined how English as a lingua franca is indeed establishing itself in multiple forms; there is no more standardised English, and it is being transformed daily by non-native speakers more so than native speakers. English being such a malleable, flexible language has resulted in hundreds of different Englishes. (Remember that not every accent can be encapsulated only by the terms ‘American’ or ‘British’ or ‘Australian’.)

But the reason why I’ll never speak Singlish is this: no one else other than Singaporeans can understand it. Furthermore, almost all Singaporeans can understand ‘proper English’ anyway. It’ll be a long, long time (in other words, never) before you’ll hear me speak ungrammatical English – I am an English Literature student after all.

7. Relation to Writing Dialogue

BritishAccentsI’ll finish off this long rambling post with relating this issue to my writing. Belonging neither here nor there, speaking neither this particular English nor that particular English, forces me into a disadvantageous position, of not knowing for certain what authentic dialogue in English-speaking countries sound like. Yes, I am aware of certain words or phrases used only in America or the UK, but if I were to write a story exclusively set in one of those countries, I might subconsciously include other -isms and inflections that don’t belong.

Which is why I have a core group of editors stemming from various countries, from America to Canada to the UK to Singapore, whom I can turn to if I need someone to ensure the dialogue I have written is indeed authentic-sounding.

~

WheelerWeeklyAndrewWeldonAccent_size8English is a beautiful language and continues to transform and expand.

Up until very recently, my desire to adopt a full American or British accent must have subconsciously stemmed from my natural desire as a TCK to fit fully with a specific group of people.

But now, I take pride in my Transatlantic accent, and also my ability to switch freely between accents to match the appropriate circumstances, viewing it as just another part of my complex international persona and identity.

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3 thoughts on “Accents of the English Language

  1. I love what you’ve written. My children who are TCKs can fully identify with you. Justin, can I share this with other TCKs and others who might benefit from reading this, please?

    Like

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