S’poreans may change their accent to be understood abroad. It doesn’t make them less S’porean.

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | August 11, 2019, 10:15 AM

By Yonas Ngaturi, 23

Having been born and raised in Singapore my whole life, I feel essentially Singaporean even if the nationality on my IC and my name sounds otherwise (my dad’s Indonesian, that’s why my name sounds Indonesian, though some might say Japanese).

I often speak English to my peers. Like others of Chinese ethnicity studying in Singapore, I gave my best shot in grasping Chinese as my second language through primary and secondary school.

Occasionally, I also speak some dialects and Malay, which I learned from friends and from my travels.

So effectively, if you don't know my name, you wouldn't be able to distinguish me from other Singaporeans from hearing the way I speak.

When the time came to decide what to do after National Service, studying abroad became a rather exciting prospect. It was going to be a challenge but it was one that I’d relish. However, it meant that I had to leave my friends and family in Singapore for new experiences and people in Australia.

I would also have to trade away the “so how ah” and “what you want (to) order” for “what do you reckon” and “how’s it going mate, what can I get you today”.

Beyond this and the many factors I considered before deciding to study in Australia, there was one I overlooked -- the different accent I have compared to the locals.

Throughout my first year at university, I had to adjust my speech to be understood.

I remembered one incident distinctly -- it was 10:45pm and I had just finished preparing for a seven-minute class presentation for the next day.

Then it dawned on me that being a student from Singapore presenting to a class in which more than half my classmates are Australians, it is possible they may not be able to understand my (relatively foreign) accent.

This is one of the many struggles faced by international students – to be understood by the locals and to understand the locals.

Thankfully, foreign accents do not hamper our grades

Despite my worries, the presentation went well (thankfully!) and I was heartened to receive positive feedback for it.

After that, however, I decided to try to improve my public speaking skills, especially for an Australian audience.

I attended a presentation skills workshop for international students, and learned that the university teaching staff actually find foreign accents fascinating.

A senior faculty member also said, to my relief, that a foreign accent does not make an international student less understandable, and will not hamper their presentation grade.

This assuaged some of my concerns that the way I spoke would be a problem in a foreign country.

Making changes to be understood

That being said, in my daily interactions with locals, I did over the years I spent there pick up on their idiosyncrasies and slang. I also consciously altered how I spoke in order to be understood.

Singaporeans tend to speak quite quickly. And in order for the Australians to understand me, I practiced speaking slower and was mindful to pronounce my words clearer.

My yeah-s become less of a flat ‘yah’ into a more rounded ‘ye-ah’ or ‘ye-air’.

I would also incorporate more ‘Australian’ figures of speech in the way I speak. I greet people with “how are you” or “how’s it going (it is, after all, good to check in with people and ask them about themselves).

I would also thank people or service staff in particular with “cheers” or “have a good one” — this is something I picked up from local service staff. Unlike in Singapore where they would directly ask “what you want (to order)?”, Australian service staff tend to greet customers and ask them how they are before taking their order.

I don’t think accent-switching is a bad thing

Because many international students (me included) change the way we speak in order to be understood by locals, there seems to be a perception that studying abroad means we return with a different accent.

I don’t think that is necessarily the case.

Apart from interacting with locals, international students also do very much hang out among themselves. In fact, my closest friends here are my fellow international students.

Now it’s when locals converse with international students that it gets interesting.

In class, I recall having a group discussion with a Singaporean and an Australian. Within that entire session, I juggled a mix of Singlish and (what I had thus far picked up of) Australian English so as to make the conversation more comfortable for everyone involved.

Especially, but not only on that occasion, it felt weird to keep switching between how I would speak with Australians and with Singaporeans.

That being said, I understand the perception that doing this can come off as pretentious or two-faced. But I choose to do so anyway in the interest of being understood, which to me trumps pleasing someone who judges me for doing that.

Non-Singaporeans were influenced by us as well

If your friends are mostly locals or you interact with locals quite frequently, you may tend to use your accented speech more with them. Over time, this can become a habit – making your accented speech your natural speech — and that’s how folks like us who go overseas end up returning with an accent that differs from what we went there with.

What I’ve found interesting, though, is that it’s not just us who have changed the way we speak. I’ve also noticed friends of other nationalities getting influenced by us.

If a local’s circle of friends include a sizeable number of international students, for instance, I’ve observed that international students would tend to be more comfortable with their native accents and manners of speaking.

Over time spent hanging out, non-Singaporeans do pick up on these quirks.

I saw this happen one of my friends, a Japanese guy who was taught by native English speakers (such as teachers from Canada and Great Britain) and went to the U.S. on homestay programmes when he was younger.

To my great amusement, he began subconsciously picking up Singlish terms like “lah”, “aiyo” and “walao eh” in regular speech.

He also remarked once, “I’ve been using a lot of lahs around you guys lately, I hope I don’t accidentally use it among my other (non-Singaporean) friends.”

My friends’ views on me speaking with an accent

Initially, before I left for Australia, my friends jokingly warned me not to return with an Australian accent.

I guess there is some sense that it would look fake or an attempt to sound more “atas” than the average Singaporean (because AMDK right). From what I have experienced this past year in Australia, though it isn’t that easy to take on a totally different accent and incorporate it into one’s daily speech naturally.

There are many factors, of course, that influence a person’s eventual change in accent – their exposure to locals, the primary accent that is being used, personality and upbringing, just to name a few.

And besides, accents can be picked up in many contexts, not just from studying abroad.

For instance, some of my Singaporean friends who don’t choose to go abroad may nonetheless pick up a more “Western-sounding” accent from watching Western movies or TV shows frequently. Other Singaporeans may also pick one up from attending an international school.

I would say that for most of the international students I know, our accented speech has not become our natural speech. We usually revert to our natural speech when talking to Singaporeans or other international students.

Changing the way we speak to be better understood is a practical choice

While studying abroad, the challenge of not being understood by the locals is a very real one.

And I would say that modifying our natural speech — in whatever ways one is comfortable with — to be better understood is not a bad thing to do at all.

At the end of the day, accents and modifying the way we speak all contribute to how we integrate into communities, adapt to social situations and develop (some) sense of belonging.

Most of the time, these accents are developed in response to specific contexts. But even if our accented speech does become a permanent part of us, is that really such a terrible thing?

The way I speak may change throughout my life as I move from place to place, but I am still very much the same person with the same values.

Top photo composite image, courtesy of Yonas Ngaturi.