‘Me and my so-called third cultural English accent’

By Shazni Ong

Have you ever wondered somewhere in the middle of a conversation suddenly you tend to speak in your very accent?  You need to be aware of what and how you are saying these words, whether or not you are pronouncing it correctly. I do.

Raised by Malaysian parents, I started speaking English when I was just a little kid at at kindergarten centre known as the Child Enrichment Centre (now known as Real Kids) in Shah Alam and Subang Jaya. I don’t remember much the way I spoke my English except that I assumed it might have been just normal, plain English.

At the age of 7, I started attending an Australian public school in Canberra called Gilmore Primary School. Again, I don’t remember much the way I spoke my English, except this time around it would have been Australian English. And since I was still young I could grab the accent quickly.

A year later, I was back in Malaysia and went to a public school in Subang Jaya called Sekolah Kebangsaan Seri Selangor in USJ 4. I spent five years schooling there and since the school’s medium was in Malay, I lost much of the Australian accent gradually.

In 2004, I sat my feet on the soil where arguably the language itself was originated, that is Britain. Although I considered myself to live in an urban area such as Subang Jaya, the surrounding caused me to adopt a Malaysian accent. Malaysian English, while based on the British English, is also influenced by American, Malay, Chinese and Indian dialects. The result is a creole called colloquial Malinglish, which doesn’t follow much with the standard and common language rules.

I could still remember the day when I was called out of my year 8 class and was informed that I need to attend English lessons in order to improve my pronunciation, besides my grammar. Almost every week, I had to practiced my ‘r’, curling my tongue upward, towards the roof and back of my mouth. I also had to work on my ‘th’ – much Malaysians would not pronounce this properly, saying words like ‘tree’ instead of the supposedly ‘three’. Understandably, I felt stupid at the time. But looking back in memories, I’m now extremely thankful for this coaching.

To many Caucasians, any Asian speaking fluent English is utterly astonishing and impressive. I acquired a strong British accent in high school over time though however, that moment had to be short lived as I had to fly back to Malaysia to do my Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM). Coming back, I realised just how unpleasant the Malaysian accent and ‘Malinglish’ was to my ears. Nevertheless, the result of growing up speaking English while living in Britain for four years can be extremely difficult for my Malaysian high school friends to understand. After being much teased by my friends, I decided to adapt to this common speaking of English.

After completing national service, I began life as a student at the International Islamic College in Malaysia. This time, I desperately wanted to acquire an American accent. As immersed as I had been using British English for years, I subsequently espoused the idiotic viewpoint that it was a ‘cool’ and ‘easy listening’ English. Again, the regrettable issue of superiority manifested itself through my sudden dislike of British English and my immediate embrace of all things American. So, being the wise guy, I decided to fake an American accent.

It was horrible.

I was very aware of my pseudo-American accent during my first year, trying eagerly to blend in and it wasn’t long before I realised I had a serious dilemma: I didn’t know what accent I was speaking in. By this point, I understood that I would never fully speak English in a Malaysian accent, nor an American accent, nor a British accent. I could get close, but never fully, never native. So what did I speak?

As stated by Justin Lau in his article entitled ‘What accent are you?’, “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”. As a matter of fact, just like what he stated, I too have learnt my lesson.

And allowed me to to quote the rest of his article to complete my side of story in which I agree upon to with:

“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?” ***

Image taken from seachangementoring.com/blog-page/tckchat/

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