Speak now or forever hold your peace

First published

One of the more jarring things about coming to Singapore from the United States is the predominant English accent here. It’s not so much that the pronunciations are different in themselves, but that they don’t match up with what I expect from people’s appearances. My image of Chinese speakers of English, for example, came from what I heard growing up around them in America. Adults tended to have an accent that was recognizably “Chinese”, and, despite having a reasonably good command of English, generally preferred to speak in Mandarin or their own native dialect. Younger people, on the other hand, usually spoke fluent American English.

My sociolinguistics professor (who is himself a vaguely American-sounding Korean) taught us about language ideologies and attitudes a couple of weeks into the course. He drew a distinction between the two terms, one that I have subsequently forgotten, but talking about the subject got me thinking about it constantly. It’s kind of like learning an architectural technique and then seeing it in every single building you pass by for the next week or so.

The first linguistic belief I found needed tweaking concerned what accents a native speaker of English could have. I had expected, with the significant British influence on Singapore, that there would be not a few people who had accents to suit. So far, I have heard exactly zero people speaking in RP, or even the accent I hear on CCTV 9 newscasts. On the other hand, even native speakers of English in Singapore have what I perceive as a rather strong accent. Their delivery may be perfect otherwise, but sometimes I have to listen very closely to make out what’s being said because the accents are on different syllables, or certain consonant sounds are swapped. (These problems are made ten times worse during phone conversations.)

Occasionally, this leads to some fun in trying to determine what language to use. If I’m speaking to someone that doesn’t sound like a native speaker of English, and I know this person understands Mandarin, my instinct tends to be to switch to the latter. This is probably due partly to previous experience, where conversations went more smoothly when I used Chinese, and partly to my desire to improve my own Mandarin skills, which I consider tragically bad. However, this approach backfires when I’m talking to a native speaker of English with a Singaporean accent who just happens to also speak Mandarin. This exact situation happened at one dinner conversation, where an acquaintance and I switched predominant languages about four or five times before a mutual friend told me that I should just stick with English.

Some awkward silence followed on my part.