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NTU linguist: Nothing wrong speaking English with Singaporean accent

Dr Tan Ying Ying, an Associate Professor of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at NTU, wrote a commentary frowning upon some Singaporeans who have gone to lengths to deliberately speak like Westerners. Her article was published on CNA last Sat (13 Oct).

"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," she said. "The Singaporean accent has always been a distinctive feature of Singapore English speakers and I am not talking about Singlish here."

However, in recent years, she has noticed an increasing number of young Singaporeans speaking English with a somewhat "foreign" accent. "I have also received queries from concerned observers about why more and more Singaporeans are sounding 'fake'," she shared.

Student with 'fake' accent

She recalled a student in her class some time ago sounded somewhat unusual. His accent was not Singaporean but neither was it American, British, Australian, or any of the accents she is familiar with.

It was a strange combination of a number of different accents that she heard. Some weeks the student sounded a little more American, sometimes a little more British, and on some occasions Australian.

Pique with curiosity, Dr Tan wanted to find out where this student had picked up his unusual accent. She asked if he is a Singaporean. He replied yes.

“Are your parents Singaporean?” Yes, he said.

“Have you always studied and lived in Singapore?”

“Yes ...”

In fact, Dr Tan said every semester, she would come across a couple of students who would speak this way even though they are 100% native Singaporeans with 100% Singaporean parents, born and bred here, and have attended local schools all the while.

"The numbers are growing," Dr Tan noted.

Picking up "rojak foreign" accent

So, how did these young Singaporeans get their "rojak foreign" accent and why did they speak this way?

Dr Tan explained, "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 professional coaches, young Singaporeans learn to speak in a “foreign” accent mostly from what they hear on television and radio programmes, Dr Tan said.

"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," she added.

"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."

Linguistic insecurity

Citing research, Dr Tan commented that people adopt a pseudo-foreign accent are motivated by “a profound linguistic insecurity”. They think their own speech variety is inferior to other varieties, and show “an observable recognition of an exterior standard of correctness”, she further explained.

Hence, these speakers would consider the Singaporean accent 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'," she said.

Dr Tan also blamed the government's "Speak Good English Movement". She opined that such campaign legitimises and institutionalises the idea that Singaporeans do not speak English that passes muster.

Although the campaign concerns itself with helping Singaporeans speak “good” and “standard” English, the key messages, despite its best intentions, only serve to reinforce the idea that Singaporeans are poor speakers of English, or their Singaporean accented English is inferior.

Hence, some Singaporeans decide to move away from their Singaporean accented English to Western accented English. Others may also want to distinguish themselves from their fellow Singaporeans who purportedly speak "bad English".

Nothing wrong with Singaporean English

Dr Tan said that there is nothing poor or defective about the way Singaporeans 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," she said. "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," she added. "English has become an international language, and has thus also nativised into different varieties of Englishes all over the world."

She said it is perfectly normal to 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," she advised.