The So-Called Art Of Mimicking Western Accents

We all speak English differently. Some of us speak “Singlish”, “Chinglish”, “Manglish”, “Konglish”, “Frenglish” or “Spanglish”, variations of the language incorporating a mish-mash of non-English words.

I am no stranger to flitting around with the overseas crowd here in Melbourne. Whenever I latch onto one of the, say, Singaporean or Malaysian cliques, I hear them spout one of these colloquial forms of English among themselves non-stop.

English is spoken differently by different people of different backgrounds. Photo: Mabel Kwong

English is spoken differently by different people of different backgrounds. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Funnily enough, on many occasions when a Caucasian friend or acquaintance joins us, I hear them drop their usual accent and immediately put on a Westernised English one. When the white person toddles off, they revert back to their normal way of talking.

All the time, we want others to understand what we are saying. Sometimes phrases like “no lah and “cheh” so commonly sprinkled within some of our everyday English conversations are completely foreign to Caucasians, phrases with tonality and vernacular that can leave them scratching their heads. So it is no surprise for non-whites new in Melbourne or any other Western city to assimilate and adopt Western speech to strike up conversations between white locals and themselves.

However, there is seemingly more to the phenomenon of non-whites imitating gwei los speaking. Sounding “white” is arguably a “face” thing, a means for non-whites living in the Western world who usually speak with non-Anglo accents to assert themselves as equal citizens. For example, many desperate international students tend to drop their accents in their attempts to sound “white” during interviews so as to better their chances of landing jobs in Australia.

As Muslim Reverie has written, “people of color with accented English are treated as somehow having ‘less credibility,’ regardless of their education status” by white and non-white people. I deal with a number of people via phone at work and at least once a week, a caller will ask me condescendingly, “Where are you from?”, after I have answered all of their questions in my slightly Singaporean-Malaysian tinged accent.

When I mentioned this to one of my Caucasian Australian colleagues, she was very surprised and wondered aloud why no one ever asks her this question. I had no answer.

Then there is the case of some non-whites who want to be white. Maybe they are either embarrassed to sound non-white, ashamed of their culture, or at the very least think of the white race and ideals as classy and superior. Sad as it may be, some kow tow, bow down or suck up to Caucasians. I have seen Asian friends of mine let their hearts out in Facebook statuses, lamenting about their efforts to speak more like an American so as to “get more white friends” and make a living in the Western world, never going back to Asia.

Also, countless of times I have walked into shops where the female Asian attendant gives me the silent treatment. Every time a Caucasian walks in, she hurries over to them with an overtly cheery, Americanised, “Hi! How are you?”.

It is no secret that the “fresh off the boat”, FOB, and “foreign” accents are always used for comedic purposes, racially mocked in Western media. Who can blame minority groups in Western society for wanting to distance themselves from the ridiculous stereotype?

My FOB accent was distinctly strong when I moved back to Melbourne from Singapore some time ago. I remember hearing many Asian Australians speak in a strong “Asian-Oz accent” for the first time and thought, “How annoying”. I also remember feeling intimidated by this accent – Asians Australians spoke with perfectly grammatically correct English and I envied this. I think they picked up my hostile feelings and avoided me.

Over the last few years, my FOB accent has softened, though still on the tip of my tongue. A little bit of the broad Aussie accent has crept into my speech, I must say, and I get international students blinking at me when they hear me talk to them for the first time. All the time, I sincerely hope they see, hear me as approachable.

Studies have shown we imitate accents and speech patterns without meaning to and subconsciously yearn to bond with those around us. Do I deliberately try to sound more East Asian while talking to a person who speaks with an East Asian accent?

No.

Everyone is beautiful in their own way, just as all sound is beautiful. Why not just be yourself and speak the way you naturally do all the time?

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18 thoughts on “The So-Called Art Of Mimicking Western Accents

  1. Very interesting observations. There are so many accents and dialects. I have always thought they are all cool. I come from an area in America that has a strong accent heavily influenced by Finnish and French. As it is, most people when they hear me speak think I am from either Canada or an European country and I get joked on. But now I teach English and I have to try my best to pronounce words clearly and with as little accent as possible. I don’t know if I actually accomplish it but it my students seem to enjoy.

    You’ve made some great comments. I hope more people will embrace the beautiful sounds of diverse language. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Now that you mention it, I think it’s quite true many teachers try their best to teach English with as little accent as possible. No teacher wants their students confused pronouncing certain vowels with a certain sound/tonality they are not used to – their tongues will get twisted! Your accent sounds interesting and cool I’m sure if I heard it, I’ll say it sounds American 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. Another great article Mabel – you’ve done it again! Everyone has an accent, but in Australia if you don’t have an ‘Australian accent’ you are not ‘credible’ or something. I have an Australian accent but people still ask me where I come from and still think I’m ‘foreign’. But hey, at least I know Tasmania is one of the Australian states (so many ‘Australians’ don’t even know this!).

    I think accents are beautiful. It’s a pity some people don’t want to be themselves, they think they will get respect if they give-in to social pressures but, in fact, they got more disrespect than respect. I have seen Asians who (hehehe I want to say literally and figuratively) throw themselves at Westerners just to please them with their ‘accent’, knowledge of English and Western culture.

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    • Perhaps people ask ‘where you’re from’ mainly because you look foreign and you’re not white. There are some people, white Australians, out there who think that just because one looks Asian, they are non-Australian. But I digress. Apparently the Australian accent is different in each state. I heard those in Perth have the strongest broad Australian accent than the other states and those up in Queensland drag out their words a bit (see this thread describe it http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20081007225246AAuHyj3).

      You put it very well when you say some Asians use a fake “accent” to throw themselves at Westerners. I don’t know what Westerners perceive of this. Not too sure if they think highly of these Asians just because they speak like they (Caucasians) do, or think of these Asians as ridiculous.

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      • Yeah I’ve heard there are slight variations of accents across Australia; not surprised that people from Perth and NT use more Australian Slang than NSW and VIC – maybe because Perth is like 1970s of Australia. I think Westerners don’t like Asians who fawn, they probably think they are ridiculous. I wish people could just be happy with themselves

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  3. Yep, the accent always give me frustrated in both speaking and listening. I don’t think I can alter my Thai accent when speaking English language. However, I’m trying to lessen my flaws in pronunciation such as the ending sound of word and sh/ch sound, etc. Hopefully, it will help.

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    • Learning a language takes time, and learning and pronouncing words – even accents – slowly I believe is the way to go. I suppose for you, hearing different English accents (e.g. American, British) makes it confusing and harder for you to pronounce certain words. Never heard you or any Thai person speak English before, but I would like to think that Thai-accented English sounds cool! It already does!

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  4. I speak Spanglish all the time now. Which is fine in Mexico, but problematic when talking to anyone from home. It terrifies me when I have to think about a word in English! This is really interesting about the accents, I had never really thought about people trying to sound “white”…

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    • Yes! Absolutely terrifying if we are stumped and can’t express something in English or first language. And embarrassing too. But sometimes we really can’t help it – it’s just a mind-blank moment 🙂 I’ve grown up all my life with people around me trying to sound “white”. Never have I met anyone who wants to sound “non-white” on a consistent basis to impressive. A strange world we live in.

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  5. Actually, I found that Europeans speak English with a distinct accent also, thus I felt more at ease talking to them as compared to British, Americans or even Australians whose mother tongue is English, since all talk with an accent, ha ha. For me, it is hard to change my accent just to bond better, so I just talk a lot less.

    On a side note, I realized sometimes, Chinese from China sometimes cannot understand Singaporean’s Chinese due to the regular additions of Malay and Hokkien.

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    • Yes, why change your accent if it will impede in bonding with other people? I suppose if we make a conceited effort to sound more American or British when talking, we would just be stumbling over our words half the time. What a first impression that would make when we’re talking to someone new 🙂

      Chinese is spoken differently all throughout Asia, so I agree with you that some Chinese find it difficult understanding Singaporeans speaking Chinese. Also, I reckon some Singaporeans find it hard understanding people from China speaking Chinese because the latter’s Chinese has different intonations (or emphasis on Chinese characters).

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      • Yeah, it is more important to be ourselves, and just speak in whatever accent we are comfortable with. I just met up with a friend of mine who had moved to Australia, even his accent had changed a bit without him realizing it 😀

        Especially the Chinese from the North area, their accent is so thick that I cannot catch a word!

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  6. I grew up in a Chinese speaking family not knowing a word of English until I had to go to school when I was seven.

    After a term at school, my teacher summoned my parents to inform them I would need extra lessons from the British Council as my English was lagging far behind my peers’ in class.

    My horrified and embarrassed parents therefore sent me for extra English lessons two times a week. I learned to speak English from a lovely lady from London and remained her student for the next seven years of my life in a course called Spoken English that was offered by the Trinity College of London in the 80s and 90s to students in Singapore where I am from.

    I spoke like my teacher from London ever since I got into contact with the language. Being a precocious learner I corrected my local teachers’ pronunciation often and although it won me no favours at school, I stand by my belief in speaking a language the way it is meant to be spoken, with the right stresses and intonation for speech to be intelligible. Especially as a teacher, one has the responsibility to teach rightly and correctly proper pronunciation and grammar.

    I am no billionaire with family backing and wealth dating back generations for me to neglect my speech and the impact it has on my employability. I spoke well and speak well until today. I kept my Chinese name and will usually stump the person I am speaking with on the phone who is flabbergasted I am not British.

    I accept all varieties of accents around the world and as an English teacher I do many of them to keep my children entertained in class. However, it is important to know the rules before attempting to break away from them. I am writing this because I am shocked at the level of English spoken in Singapore today. I am also appalled at the discrimination against proper speech. I have been called snobbish or been told I have forgotten my roots. I haven’t.

    I can totally lapse into Singlish at will and cause uncontrollable laughter in class, but I choose to speak English the way it is meant to be spoken, clearly and in its natural cadence and rhythm. When asked how come I speak the way I do, I quote Nehru, “I had to learn it.”

    I am not trying to “sound western” or to impress people with my way of speech, I execute my choice to speak the way I wish and respect the way in which others choose to speak. I just choose the “white” way.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You have come a long way from not being able to speak fluent to being an English teacher today. Learning a language is never easy, but learning with other kids is usually makes it more fun and you get to practise the language with each other one on one in class. That lady who thought you English for you must have been dedicated.

    Correct punctuation, grammar and intonation certainly punctuated languages. I think depending on where we are from or rather where we call home and our life experiences, we have a different way of perceiving how a language is supposed to be spoken. Not all of us are able to pronounce certain vowels, or perhaps find it challenge to enunciate a language in a certain way.

    Agree with you that there are certain rules around every language, and there is often history behind these rules – and thus it is important to learn the rules as you mentioned. Also, like you I feel that we should all be able to speak the way we want to speak and no speech is snobbish.

    Thanks so much for your engaging comment. It was a very refreshing read, and it is much appreciated.

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  8. Hey, just want to say thank you for this post. You totally spoke my mind! Moving from Singapore to Canada has been quite a transition. I still feel intimidated with my accent. Sometimes, when I speak, many think English isn’t my first language when strangely enough… I write it much better than my own supposedly mother tongue….I am still working on being comfortable with my own accent and culture. This post is certainly an encouragement to me. Thank you again 🙂

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    • It is funny how some people perceive good English to sound and be said in a certain way. In reality, not all of us can enunciate every single tone in the world. All of us have an accent.

      Good luck on finding your feet in Canada. You sound very determined, and I am cheering for you, Audrey. And thank you for the nice words 🙂

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