SINGAPORE: Call it an occupational interest, I have always been curious about people’s accents.
Accents offer us glimpses into a speaker’s life, and can give us information about the speaker’s background.
Just like how one can tell if a person is American, British, Filipino, Indian, or French, just from the way the speaker sounds when speaking English, a Singaporean speaker of English can also be easily identified.
The Singaporean accent has always been a distinctive feature of Singapore English speakers and I am not talking about Singlish here.
MORE SINGAPOREANS SPEAKING WITH A ‘FOREIGN ACCENT’
In recent years however, I have noticed that some Singaporeans are speaking English with a somewhat “foreign” accent. I have also received queries from concerned observers about why more and more Singaporeans are sounding “fake”.
I recall vividly a student, Tom (not his real name), in my Anthropological Linguistics class a few years ago. Tom stood out because he sounded somewhat unusual.
I could not place him because his accent was not Singaporean, but it was also not American, British, Australian, or any of the accents I am familiar with.
It was a strange combination of a number of different accents, and I also thought it odd that his “accent rojak” had slightly different flavours week on week. Some weeks he sounded a little more American, sometimes a little more British, and on some occasions Australian.
I was intrigued, and I had to know his story.
“Are you Singaporean, Tom?” Of course, he answered proudly.
“Are your parents Singaporean?” Yes, he said.
“Have you always studied and lived in Singapore, Tom?”
“Yes ...” his answer more hesitant now, perhaps knowing where I was going with this line of questioning.
Putting the strange accent aside, Tom was your typical young Chinese Singaporean in a local university reading a degree. His parents were both Chinese Singaporean. Tom and his family had also not lived outside of Singapore.
Tom’s story is in fact not unusual. Every semester, I come across a couple of students who are exactly like Tom, and the numbers are growing. How then did Tom (and others) get the accent, and why did he speak with this strange “foreign” accent?
Accents can be learnt. Hollywood actors go for accent training with dialect coaches when they have to take on roles that require them to sound a certain way.
Without the help of professional coaches, Singaporeans like Tom learn to speak in a “foreign” accent mostly from what they hear on television and radio programmes.
With easy access to the internet, cable TV and Netflix, young Singaporeans are constantly exposed to programmes that showcase Hollywood stars who, by and large, speak either American or British English.
And as young Singaporeans try to learn from what they hear on these programmes, they pick up features of speech that they may find particularly attractive, usually in a random fashion.
This kind of accent adoption is at best, a kind of mimicry. Mimicry, unfortunately, is an imperfect form of learning; and the copycat is never the real deal.
PROFOUND LINGUISTIC INSECURITY
But what is so wrong with the Singaporean accent that some young people, like Tom, feel the need to adopt a pseudo-foreign accent? These speakers, linguists such as William Labov would say, are motivated by “a profound linguistic insecurity”.
Speakers exhibit signs of linguistic insecurity when they brand their own speech variety as inferior to other varieties, and show “an observable recognition of an exterior standard of correctness”.
The Singaporean accent, for these speakers, is considered to be less than ideal. To feel linguistically superior, it becomes paramount to adopt someone else’s accent which is supposedly more “correct” and more “standard”.
SINGAPOREANS DO NOT SPEAK GOOD ENGLISH?
This linguistic insecurity felt by some Singaporeans is no accident. There has been a national narrative that has been centered on the less-than-ideal standard of English in Singapore.
The almost two-decade long national language campaign, the Speak Good English Movement, legitimises and institutionalises the idea that Singaporeans do not speak English that passes muster.
The Speak Good English Movement therefore concerns itself with helping Singaporeans speak “good”, “standard” English. The key messages, and in fact, the very existence of this campaign, despite its best intentions, only serve to reinforce the idea that Singaporeans are poor speakers of English, or they are speakers of an undesirable variety of English.
These messages, to the truly linguistically insecure, would motivate them to elevate their Singaporean accent to, in their minds, a more “superior” and more “standard” variety – whatever that may be.
And for those Singaporeans who believe themselves to be the paragons of the English language, it becomes absolutely critical for them to sound un-Singaporean so as to distinguish themselves from their fellow Singaporeans who purportedly speak bad English.
NOTHING WRONG WITH THE SINGAPOREAN ACCENT
Yet there is nothing poor or defective about the way we sound.
My research on the Singaporean accent has shown that Singaporean English speakers are highly intelligible, and that the Singaporean accent is well understood all around the world, and in fact, even more so compared to other well-known accents of English.
The problem is not how other people view us, or hear us, as it were, but the way we feel about our own accent.
The truth is, there is no need to feel insecure about the way we speak. Research on English in Singapore over the last decade has shown that English is no longer someone else’s language.
CHANGE OUR ATTITUDES TOWARDS THE SINGAPOREAN ACCENT
English is not the exclusive property of the Americans, British, or Australians. English has become an international language, and has thus also nativised into different varieties of Englishes all over the world.
In the same vein, English can be considered to be a Singaporean language. It is an official language in the country. Not only does Singapore society use English predominantly, a good majority of Singaporeans also use English as their main or even sole language of communication.
Many young Singaporeans, in reality, grow up speaking English as their first language, and many of us can be said to be native speakers of English.
If you are Singaporean, and want to be known as Singaporean, then it is not only perfectly normal, but also to be expected that you sound Singaporean.
It is time to own the English language and be proud of what we have made of it. What we need to change is not our Singaporean accent, but our attitudes toward it.
Dr Tan Ying Ying is Associate Professor of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at the School of Humanities in Nanyang Technological University. She is a Singaporean linguist working on languages in Singapore and speaks with a Singaporean accent.