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?