Do You Speak With an Accent?

Foreigners who live in the UK or Germany who have been to Singapore often ask why I don’t sound like the Singaporeans they met on holiday. Whenever I get that question, I switch on my Singaporean-speaking mode instantly and 99.9% of the time I see faces shouting “What language are you speaking?!” at me even though every word that came out was English.

Why I speak with an accent

To COMMUNICATE: Sorry fellow Singaporeans, we do tend to put our emphasis on the wrong syllable and if there’s a device to measure the speed of our speech, it will be faster than the bullet train. Mimicking an accent (like the British accent) is the easiest way for me to ensure that I pronounce words clearly. Obviously, it depends on which regional accent too. Daniel’s from Oxford so he’s got a southern accent which is easy to understand. I also need to put on an accent since I deal a lot with the British market and by putting on an accent for my work, I get a pay cheque. Singaporeans who claim to simply articulate without putting on an accent aren’t listening to themselves. WE ALL HAVE AN ACCENT!

Here is a personal example:

Me: Hey, I’ve submitted the request to the publisher and I’m just waiting to get a quote from them.

Brit: A coat?

Me: Yes…we need to pay for the rights before publishing the book.

Brit: But why would you need a coat from them?

Me: So we know how much it will cost us?

Brit: OHHHH!!! QU-OTE!

Another example:

Dan: Spell “WORLD”.

Singaporean kid: W-O-R-L

Dan: There’s a “d” at the end.

Singaporean kid: Got meh (which is singlish for “is there?”)? But it’s “worl”.

Dan: It’s “WORL-D”.

Just as it can be difficult for a Singaporean who isn’t accustomed to American/ British English (like my parents weren’t to begin with) to understand Friends or British comedies, it is similarly hard for them to understand us if we do not put an effort to articulate. A great Singaporean trait is our ability to switch between standard English and Singlish. For instance, I’ll never use Singlish with my in-laws. That’s like learning a whole new language for them. It’s a different story with Daniel because he has lived in Singapore with my family and understands the accent well enough. With my friends, SINGLISH ALL THE WAY!

There is always a fear within me for speaking too proper when I’m back in Singapore. I’ve had ignorant teenagers (16 – 18 years old) passing comments such as “Oh! She’s dating a white guy!” or middle-aged aunties saying in Hokkien “White man! White man!” Some rude parents even allow their young children to stare at Daniel when we were having breakfast at a neighbourhood coffeeshop. It used to make me really angry because I wondered why the difference in our skin colour should be of any significance? It’s not as if I walk round Singapore shouting “Indians”, “Malays”, or “Chinese”. When people stare at us because we’re a mix-race couple, I don’t give a sh*t anymore. I’m in love with this WHITE MAN and he loves ME, the YELLOW SKIN girl, more than anything or anyone else in this W-O-R-L-D.

Apparently, I’m a banana. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

My fear has been instilled in me since I was a teenager. Since my folks didn’t speak to me in Chinese back home when I was little, I grew up pretty much in an English-speaking environment until I went to school. In my teens there were bullies who would mock me for speaking good English and called me a “banana”. Desperate to fit in, I learned to speak more like my schoolmates. A good mix of dialects, Mandarin and broken English.

Apparently, a Singaporean putting on an accent may be viewed as arrogant especially to the lost, older generation who didn’t go through English education. I understand where they’re coming from. However, are there any Singaporeans who approach aunties and uncles (ie. STRANGERS) in Singapore with an adopted accent? I will never do that! Not even when my man is standing next to me. To put it simply, it’s an inferiority complex. Strangely enough, I don’t get those vibes from my family and extended family. In ours, we have always placed a lot of emphasis that children MUST be well spoken regardless of the languages they speak.

Final Point: This post merely reflects my thoughts on speaking with an accent. You are entitled to your own views, of course. I DO NOT think a particular accent is superior to another. However, I do think it is a necessity to be well spoken and that can be achieved in whatever accent you may already have or want to pick up. Being well spoken doesn’t necessarily mean speaking with an American/ British/Canadian/ Australian accent. To me, it means you’re fully capable of communicating with others.


5 thoughts on “Do You Speak With an Accent?

  1. I see what you mean. I am from Japan and my husband is from Yorkshire (he’s been living in London for a long time. Therefore, his accent has mellowed though). About the accent, it is an issue between us sometimes. Because while in public, I put an extra effort then at home, my english goes lazy (^-^;). I try to speak properly 24/7 but it hurts my jaw. He doesn’t understand how hard it is for someone like me who grew up in non-english environment. My oriental mouth is not structured or trained like his!

    1. You’re not alone! I pronounce certain words differently from my husband sometimes. But he finds great joy in pretending to not understand what I’m saying. It’s very easy to get lazy at home and I’m sure our other halves do understand us. However, it is very tiring putting on an accent or trying to articulate properly so that the majority of the british population understands us. Maybe he can speak Japanese to you at home if he hasn’t already done so! My husband would be so happy if we spoke Japanese at home (we both studied it and he uses it for work) but it’s so unnatural since neither of us are Japanese. That’s when my brains would hurt! :p

      1. Oh lucky you! My husband is one of those English men who are very lazy about foreign language. He never progresses from ARIGATO, OHAYO, KONICHIWA, HAI… I don’t think he knows how to say “no” in Japanese. It is partly my fault that I translate for him all the time and he is just complacent… (=_=)

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