My English: Same same but different

guest column

“Can you say something in your native language?”

“It’s actually just how I’m speaking to you right now. English is my first language, and Chinese is my second.”

“No, can you say something in your native language?” my professor insisted. “Like how you would say something to someone on the streets in Singapore.”

People often assume that just because I have a Singaporean accent, I can’t possibly be a native English speaker. As a matter of fact, many Singaporeans, particularly millennials like me, grow up speaking English as their first language. English was first introduced into Singapore under British colonization and upon Singapore’s independence, Singapore adopted English as the main language in administration, education and business

Singaporeans own a unique accent: our intonation and the way we stress syllables is distinct from British and American dialects, with variations depending on one’s ethnicity—namely, Chinese, Malay, Indian or Eurasian. But what is it about our accent that makes it so undesirable, that compelled Crazy Rich Asians—a Hollywood blockbuster literally about Singaporeans—to suppress it? An unconscious bias or cultural ignorance?

Despite my repeated explanations that English is my first language, my professor kept probing for a different answer. I sighed, and simply out of frustration, I muttered some rudimentary Chinese, just to satisfy her. 

I regularly witness this linguistic othering at Duke and in the US. There are accents that carry certain privileges, like a perception of class or education, and then there are other accents that are linked with foreignness. It is all the more disappointing when my professor at Duke makes me feel that my accent is too “foreign” and consequently, less than ideal.

As “你好吗?”, the most basic greeting in Chinese, left my lips, I already felt regret. Why did I cave in, instead of holding my ground? 

It takes courage to express ourselves fully and truly, to preserve our accent despite our marginalized voices. It also takes courage to actively westernize one’s accent in order to thoroughly fit into American society. Day in and day out, I find myself vacillating between embracing my Singaporean accent to express myself the way I am, and conveniently adopting a twang or two to sound like my American peers.

My accent is undeniably an innate part of who I am. My accent carries the rhythm of my national anthem, the heartbeat of a five million-strong nation, Singapore’s diverse ethnicities and cultures, and yet, the commonality of being Singaporean. I embrace the staccato beat of my accent proudly during conversations with friends and at job interviews, on this American soil that is ten thousand miles away from home.

On unfamiliar and foreign land, the Singaporean accent is like music to my ears, a love song from home. When Singapore's ambassador to the US Ashok Mirpuri visited Duke earlier this year, he expressed his hope that no matter where Singaporeans reside on this planet, they would always feel a tie back to home. That’s the power of the Singaporean accent—wherever I go, I can almost instantly identify the Singaporean accent in a sea of people. Every time I hang out with Singaporeans here at Duke, I feel comforted in a home away from home, basking in the melody of the Singaporean accent.

And it really hits home for me when the Singaporean accent resounds on the global stage. The moment Kenneth Sng delivered the Opening Speech at the 2016 US Presidential Debate as the Student Union president of Washington University in St. Louis, his Singaporean cadence reverberated throughout national television, enthusing me and other Singaporeans all over the world. During my internship in Seattle this past summer, I was energized by a Singaporean colleague who always spoke confidently with the richest Singaporean accent despite having been in the US for twelve years. Here we are Singaporeans, being heard loud and proud, in the United States of America.

Just as the distinct accents of the Irish, Scottish, New Yorkers and Southerners each have their own story, so too does my Singaporean accent. Instead of judging me by my accent, be open, listen to my story and hear me out—you’ll find that we actually speak the same language.

Alethea Toh is a Trinity senior.


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