Have you ever stopped in the middle of a conversation to think consciously about what accent you’re speaking in? To check if you’re pronouncing things ‘correctly’?
I have. A lot.
Raised by Singaporean parents, I grew up speaking English while living in Japan, causing me to adopt a Singaporean accent. Singaporean English, while based on British English, is also heavily influenced by American, Malay, Chinese and Indian dialects. The result is a creole called colloquial Singlish, which doesn’t comply with traditional language rules, and can be extremely difficult to understand.
At age 6, I started attending an American international school in Tokyo called Christian Academy in Japan. I still remember the day when I was called out of my fourth grade class and informed that I needed to receive speech lessons to improve my pronunciation.
My mum was furious. Why did her son, who spoke perfectly good English, need speech lessons? I was also stumped: what was wrong with the way I spoke?
Every week, I practised my ‘r’, curling my tongue upward, towards the roof and back of my mouth. I also worked on my ‘th’—many Singaporeans don’t enunciate this properly, pronouncing words like ‘three’ as ‘tree’. Understandably, I felt stupid at the time. But looking back in hindsight, I’m now extremely thankful for this coaching.
Over time, I acquired a strong American accent in high school. After graduation, I returned to Singapore to serve my two years of military service. Coming back, I realised just how unpleasant the Singaporean accent and Singlish were to my ears. I decided that I absolutely could not switch back to this ‘disagreeable’ English, and consciously and emphatically spoke in an American accent.
This was a rather unfortunate attitude of superiority I adopted. I looked down on everyone who didn’t speak ‘proper English.’ However, there were plenty of other Singaporeans who had also adopted this mindset. As a lowly recruit who didn’t even have a military rank, I found it wholly amusing how sergeants or officers who talked to me would switch to grammatically correct English.
Once, when our cohort was being punished, our sergeant began screaming at us in Singlish: “Kan ni nah, dun listen, later you kena punish!” When I went to speak to him afterwards, his tone changed entirely as he reiterated: “Make sure you follow orders and stay out of trouble, all right?” Needless to say, I felt slightly privileged.
After completing national service, I began life as a student at Durham University in the UK. This time, I desperately wanted to acquire a British accent. As immersed as I had been in American English for years, I subsequently espoused the idiotic viewpoint that it was not the ‘original and pure’ English. Again, the regrettable issue of superiority manifested itself through my sudden dislike of American English and my immediate embrace of all things British. So being the wise guy, I decided to fake a British accent.
It was atrocious. I was hyper aware of my pseudo-British accent during my first year, trying eagerly to blend in. I had heaped an unnecessary burden upon myself by choosing to fake an accent (oh, the shame!)—overly concerned with pronunciation differences, commonly-used words and phrases, rising and falling tones and pitches—all in my desperate attempt to fit in.
Let’s see. So ‘controversy’ is pronounced ‘conTROversy’ and not ‘CONtroversy’… but ‘controversial’ stays the same. Also, ‘ground floor’ rather than ‘first floor’. And it’s ‘GArage’ instead of ‘gaRAGE’… but it sounds weird when you say ‘GArageBand’! Hmm, the ‘t’ is sometimes pronounced as ‘ch’—’iTunes’ becomes ‘iCHunes’. Wait, the books of the Bible aren’t ‘FIRST John’ or ‘FIRST Peter’ but ‘ONE John’ and ‘ONE Peter’?!
Thankfully, I was spared the ridicule simply because I looked Asian—to many Caucasians, any Asian speaking fluent English is utterly astonishing and impressive.
It wasn’t long before I realised I had a serious dilemma: I didn’t know what accent I was speaking in, and neither did anyone else. When I returned to Japan and spoke to my American-speaking friends, I switched back to my American accent; yet they told me that I sounded British. On the other hand, when I returned to the UK and spoke in what I thought was a British accent, they said I sounded American. Which was it?
By this point, I understood that I would never fully speak English in a Singaporean accent, nor an American accent, nor a British accent. I could get close, but never fully, never native. So what did I speak?
After a bit of research, I found this: Mid-Atlantic English, aka Transatlantic accent, a cultivated English blending American and British. I was overjoyed. Finally, a name for my accent! My most ‘natural’ accent currently is a Transatlantic accent, heavily influenced by both Americanisms and Britishisms, and their inflections. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll forever be situated between different accents.
Some have accused me of not staying true to my accent. But the fact of the matter is, I never had a single native accent to begin with. My Singaporean accent just happened to become more American because of my school environment, and has now become more British since I live in the UK.
I’m now extra cautious about creating and maintaining long-lasting, elaborate façades—it’s exhausting and frustrating, as I realised not long after first switching to British English. Speech became a highly cognizant activity. More concerned with the delivery than content, I couldn’t express myself adequately, making me sound slow-witted whenever I spoke up in class to the bemusement of other students.
Me: “Works such as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus embodied an anthropocentric view. This is a characteristic theme of—” [The emphasis is on the second syllable—‘reNAIssance’—and not the first: ‘REnaissance’. Ok, I’ve got this.] “—the renaiSSANCE period.”
I’ve learnt my lesson.
My initial desire to adopt a fully American or British accent was a result of wanting to fit fully with specific groups of people. My experimentation of accents might even have stemmed from my subconscious search for an identity. Ultimately and understandably, the English I now speak is way more complex than I (or my parents) had ever dreamed it would be.
I still have the tendency to change accents according to the environment and people, but I now do it less out of an anxiety about my identity and more for the sake of communication. If I meet Americans, I’ll adopt an American accent. When I’m in the UK, British inflections abound. By doing this, I can communicate most effectively with others. I take pride in my ability to switch freely between accents to match the appropriate circumstances, viewing it as just another part of my complex international persona.
I’m never going to have just one accent, one language, one way of speaking. If I limit myself to just one accent, I would be limiting my identity and who I am. I’m already wavering between countries, cultures and languages—why not accents too?
I felt like I was reading about my own background and experience with the english accent having grown up in Japan and Singapore myself and currently attending Durham Uni, but I’ve come to define my accent as the international student one with a twang of British meets American. Good to know that there’s people out there who have had struggles in the past like myself and withstood the mockery by the English of American pronunciations here in Durham !! “It’s not fries it’s chips…It’s not cookies it’s biscuits”.
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Um, Japan, Singapore, current Durham Uni student. We’re pretty much the same person, how have we not met yet? haha That definitely sounds like my accent, although I do tend to go more British while I’m here in Durham. The problem is when I find myself in a room with both British AND American people…
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Totally identified with your story. I atended Australian and American schools and I now live Singapore. Now I know what my accent is called! Singlish is interesting, one part of me thinks it sounds weird and the other part of me wants to speak it so I can fit it. Thanks Justin for sharing your story.
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Thanks for reading, Robertha! Singlish is a tricky one, isn’t it. I’m not quite sure what to think about it myself.
This was amazing! I’ve recently come back to the UK for a gap year and have found that all the years I lived in Australia and Africa have changed my accent slightly. People in england hear more australian in me and people in Australia hear british in me.. Some don’t know what they hear!
I relate to the content over delivery bet much too, I’ve found it exhausting for so long.. This makes me feel so much better knowing I’m not the only accent nomad! 🙂
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Thanks Kavita! Sounds pretty much like the same accent issue—although I think I’ve reached a point where I’ve learnt simply to derive enjoyment from confounding the people I speak to haha It is exhausting, isn’t it, but from what experience has shown (and is still showing me), the more effort you make at being less conscious about your accent (I know, it sounds paradoxical), the easier it is to talk! Still wondering when I’ll figure out what my ‘Justin Lau-accent’ is though…
Love the article! My accent has changed so much over the years before settling into a seemingly interminable state of being unsettled. I live in Cambodia and when I was seven I went back to Australia, my passport country, and was so sensitive in regards to my involuntary (and very strong) American accent that my parents had to email forward to family and friends not to comment. Now, as a teen, it depends on who I’m looking at. Every American, Canadian and British person I meet thinks I come from the same place that they do. One of the only accents I cannot do is Australian. Go figure. Thing is, this switch is as involuntary as my American twang when I was seven, which is fine when I’m talking to just one nationality, but if there’s an American and a Brit standing in front of me, I will actually make the jump between accents mid-sentence if my gaze moves to the other person. It’s a fun party trick (only at multicultural parties, though), but is quite infuriating at times.
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Thanks Joey! Fascinating story—particularly intrigued by the fact that your parents were aware of the issues it could cause beforehand. I’ve not really grasped the Australian accent, understandably. But I have had Australians comment that my Transatlantic accent sounds distinctly Australian—though my friend strongly posits that Australian English is definitely not a confused mix of both British and American English and I’m inclined to agree haha Oh, the agony in finding yourself in a room with both Americans and Brits! Switching depending on who you’re talking to, trying to talk quietly enough so others can’t hear (and failing), resulting in confused/bemused looks and questions about why you sound different… I guess it is ‘a fun party trick’—I like that. Also, respect for your switching mid-sentence; not sure I’ve been brave enough to do that yet.
I’m not a TCK but as an expat living overseas for a number of years my accent has changed. I was working with many Americans for 3 years and when I went back home for a visit my own countrymen asked me which country I came from! I didn’t know whether to be insulted or angry. I hadn’t realised until then how much your identity is connected with your accent. I experienced a mini identity crisis before just getting over it!
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Hi Jeanette, thanks for sharing your experience! Yeah, I think I’ve gone from feeling either insulted or angry to being utterly amused by the reactions I receive. It’s definitely a recent discovery, that languages aren’t the only ones intricately intertwined with your identity—accents too!
Wow, I have very similar experiences in both English and French. I’m Canadian, but I grew up abroad, largely in the US, but in different parts of the US. When I’m in Canada I have a pretty good Canadian accent with the odd Americanism (cawfee anyone?) but when I go down to New York I find myself slipping back into the most ridiculous New York accent possible. It’s gotten even crazier now that I’m speaking more French–I first learned French in high school California where my teacher was an American who spoke with a pitch perfect France French accent, which I mimicked. But after doing a French immersion programme in rural Québec in preparation to move to Montréal, to my shock, horror, and delight, I now speak with a strong Québécois accent, jamming three words into one (j’t’dis, astheure), throwing in weird expressions (nous-aut’, fait que), and sticking là at the end of my sentences. Thanks for sharing your experiences!
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Wow, thanks for sharing! The more you travel, the more you realise how many different accents there are. It can be overwhelming, but at times it also feels like a challenge: how many accents can you speak in?! Ultimately, we should all be proud of the way we speak—unique, distinct and wholly our own!
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I totally feel the same way!👋🏾👋🏾👋🏾sometimes when I talk to my friends I stumble over my words because I have to hold back in using African English (which I really hate to use) and I’m self conscious about it but I’m so tired of worrying that I will give up soon. Until then, texting is my main mode of communication 😂😅 When I use my Ugandan accent on someone it’s usually for relatives on the phone and it tends to carry a couple minutes after the conversation😁
Anyways, thanks so much for writing this, it’s nice to know that someone is experiencing the same thing.
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Hi Abby, thanks for sharing your experience! I totally understand about being self-conscious, but I understand even more about how tiring it gets worrying about it! I’d say speak your accent with confidence (of course, easier said than done, and it took ages before I myself was able to), it’s your own unique voice that you and you alone speak—no one else! 😀
Thanks for your encouragement!😉👍🏾
I loved this article. I live in Japan and teach Chinese, Japanese, English and Spanish. I fee up speaking German and French. I know ASIJ. It is a wonderful school. My parents are British and German. I think I speak like a regular American. However, when chatting with my British friends they think I am British. My American friends think I am American.
I really cannot hear the difference as it all sounds the same to me. I envy you. But if I am translating between Chinese and Japanese or Spanish and have to switch back to English, I have trouble making my English ‘normal’. Getting my mouth out of the accent of those languages is not easy.
Thank you so much for sharing you experience!!
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Thanks for sharing blueyedragon! That’s a whole mix of languages and accents, I can only imagine how difficult it is to have your mouth accommodate them all and adjust accordingly. Interestingly, I envy you that it all sounds the same to you—that means, you can speak ‘your own English’ without thinking about it!
Hi Justin. I’ve just re-read this after I discovered it last year and it reads as beautifully now as it did then. It’s only thanks to this sort of article on the internet that I know I’m far from being the only one with this conundrum. (Even if it sometimes still feels like I am). I’m Australian-Canadian and have dealt with the same confusing lack of identity, the same doomed attempts to fit in, and finally the same relief at just giving up and getting on with it. Instead of cringing at what comes out of my mouth, I rather like my mangled speech, as it’s a sort of verbal scrapbook of my life so far.
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Hi David, thanks so much for your lovely comment. I’m really glad it resonated deeply with you, and yes, you’re absolutely right: you’re not alone! I like how you describe it: “a sort of verbal scrapbook of my life so far.” My voice is the only one of its kind in this world, and so is yours—and that’s in the midst of 7.4 billion individually unique voices. Isn’t that astounding?
Thanks, Justin. If only a certain type of Australian could be convinced that I’m not an American trying to corrode their society with my murky Transatlantic accent . . . but such is the comedic side of the TCK life!
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That was so entertaining! Awesome article, Justin. I can relate and let me give you some background. Both of my parents are from the Philippines. My mom holds a Bachelors degree in English (actually she has double majors but I won’t bother about the other one) and she learned from a mission leader that she should just teach her children to speak English at a very young age since in the Philippines (I was born in Cebu, Philippines), English is the 2nd official language anyway. So, from the time I was born, I spoke English until I entered kindergarten. I do not remember this but one day… my mom said that I called home using the school’s phone. While I was talking to her, she said, “why are you not speaking English?” And she said that my response was, “Because my classmates might hear me.” Apparently, as a kindergartner I already wanted to fit in so bad that I was already speaking the provincial dialect, Cebuano. We spoke English at home but somehow I learned Cebuano “outside.” We were still in Cebu at that time. I guess I learned that from them(classmates, etc) and I did not want them to know that I knew English because they might think I am “rich.” Haha Anyway, let’s fast forward to Grade 2, I started to learn Tagalog which is the 1st national language of the Philippines because we moved to the northern area of the Philippines. No embarrassing story yet. Four years later, we moved to Canada and then it was full blown Canadian English. Ok, it is not entirely British but the roots are basically British but no British accent. (Btw, in the Philippines, they taught American English so I used to say, “softdrink” instead of “pop.” In Canada, we call a carbonated drink, “pop” and I believe in the US it is called “soda”?) Fast forward to 10- 15 years later, I served as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the Philippines Manila Mission, 2005-2007. (SIDE NOTE: Manila is the capital city and is on the northern part of the Philippines. Cebu is on the southern-central part of the Philippines.) I was proud to start speaking Tagalog to some Filipino locals there but immediately, lots of them noticed something about my accent! They question my Tagalog accent! At first, I would honestly tell them that I am from Canada. Then they would ask me “How do you get to Canada? I wanna go there too.” And then I do not have an answer because I was 12-13 years old when we immigrated here in Canada in 1996. It was not my decision. Anyway, to deter further questions of immigration, I decided to say, “I was born in Cebu.” Is that true? Yes. Did it work? Did the immigration questions cease? MOST OF THE TIME! Hahaha What a miracle! I thank Heavenly Father for giving me a way to answer THE question from a Tagalog speaker, “Where are you from?” while avoiding Canadian immigration questions! Haha In essence, it did satisfy their curiosity about my accent when I spoke Tagalog. You see, Cebuanos who try to speak Tagalog do have certain accent. An uneducated Tagalog can be fooled but for others, no. Some give me a follow-up question but I just smile and kept saying, “I was born in Cebu.” It’s like saying, “I was born in the south therefore I have a bit of a southern accent.” Eventually, I do tell some of them my real story as soon as they have gained my trust. Anyway, because of your article, now I know that whenever I speak Tagalog, I have a “Taglishaya” accent. I made that up. Cebu is under the Visayan region and the Cebuano provincial dialect can be called, “Bisaya” sometimes. Therefore, “Taglish” is mixture of English and Tagalog. And I want to say that “aya” is the short version for “Bisaya” so therefore, I had a “Taglishaya” accent while I served as a missionary back in 2005-2007. I hope you enjoyed that and I hope it gave you some kind of insight. Thanks again!
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Hi Chelle, thanks so much for sharing your story! I love hearing about other people’s experiences, and you’ve had one crazy accent journey! And I’m all for making up new accent names. “Taglishaya” sounds awesome 😀
Love your article! So articulate and well-written. I was born Dutch and grew up in Southern Africa. My English accent is now a mix of British, American and African accents. I so recognise/recognize your story. I’ve long given up on trying to change my accent. It just happens naturally, depending on who I speak to. I’ve discovered that humour/humor is often the best way to deal with awkward situations. I still find that writing essays and deciding which spell checker to use still gets to me though!
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Hi Martha, thanks so much! Definitely, I find it’s better to poke fun at and make light of myself (and my accent) first—calling out the elephant in the room, if you will. 😛 Oh, adjusting spellings according to what I’m writing is another issue in itself!