Thursday, September 14, 2006 ______________________________________________________________________________

"Really? You have NO accent!" 

I was in a discussion group recently where we were talking about speech production and the body's involvement. So you know, it's easy to walk and talk, but not run and talk and it's difficult to walk and yell and damn near impossible to run and yell. Try it if you don't believe me. And if you have to try it to know this is true, you are a very, very strange person. I'd like to meet you. Email me.

To supplement the discussion I decided to bring up the fact I would routinely have to do body loosening excercises alongside vocal warm-up excercises at choir and that I had a conductor who wouldn't allow us to sit and sing. I added, "I had a fascist conductor." To which Eric replied, "Of course you did, you're from Singapore."

After class I was milling around, talking to the new Linguistics Ph.D candidate Eric's supervising and he said, "So are you really from Singapore? When did you move here?"

Me: "When I was 16."
Him: "9-10 years ago?"
Me: "Closer to 5."
Him: "WOW, but...but like, but you have no accent."

I replied with my usual "it depends on who I'm talking to, how sober I am, my mother was an ardent supporter of 'proper' (and by her standards, proper=non-Singaporean) English, yadda yadda yadda". Let's just recall my thoughts on a Proper English Accent from a previous post (here I'm talking about why my original ambition to be an accent coach doesn't align with my morals anymore):

The problem now though, was that I didn't believe in accent coaching anymore. Accent coaching comes out of a very eurocentric view that the only proper varieties of English are the ones that are spoken by people who are vaguely identified as "white". I remember my mother trying to push "British" English on us, making annoyed clucking sounds when we spoke like Singaporeans, which is frankly ridiculous because having a Singaporean accent and being extremely fluent in English are not mutually exclusive. Besides, what is "British" English? The Beatles' English? The English that is parlayed by the Samoan barkeep (or indeed any of the other characters) in Lock, Stock and two Smoking Barrels? How about the mumble-grumblings that Brad Pitt so effectively spouts in Snatch? Worst of all, could she want us to sound like various characters in Frasier? Maybe she would've just settled for the cheap, working class drawl of the ladies in Absolutely Fabulous (which is an absolutely horrible show, IMHO). Accent coaches just play into the public masturbatory idea that white is ideal, no matter how poorly defined "white" is.

"Look at me! I don't speak like I'm from where I was born and raised! Aren't I so smart?" - Look buddy, you won't even make it on Letterman's Stupid Pet Trick segment.

This time though, his comments really bothered me. As a Ph.D Linguistics I don't doubt for a second that he is extremely sensitive to the varieties of English out there. I also don't think that there was an explicit value judgement when he said those words. However, I couldn't help but feel that he was impressed that I sounded like a "Native English Speaker" or at least the variety that we allow as subjects on our experiments (i.e. Standard N. American English, which if you think about it is a hard definition to pin down, but as speech perception researchers you just have to make do - I mean our stimuli was recorded by a Japanese-English billingual for crying out in she has American parents but spent most of her life in Japan. Eric's daughter, in case you're wondering). Having said that I don't think there was an explicit value judgement though, I'm willing to put good money on that there certainly was an implicit value judgement. One that is so subtle that even the most politically correct person would make it before their social conscience had the opportunity to stop them.

Maybe I'm being unfair to Mark. Maybe the reason this is such a sore spot is because on my recent trip back to Singapore, the government wanted to employ people from "English speaking nations" to teach English in our schools, clearly valuing "non-Singaporean" English over Singaporean and making the assumption that non-Singaporean instruction is better than the local variety. Let me make this clear. When I moved here, I was allowed into the second half of their final year of secondary education (think entering JC2 in July). That week I made the debate team and went on to represent the Lower Mainland (the most populous area in the province) at the provincial debates. The first English lesson I attended was on "How To Write an Essay". The first English Literature lesson I attended was stil discussing things like "alliteration". By the end of the month, my English teacher was asking permission to read my essays and short stories aloud to the class. The drama teacher was asking me to give a short talk on playwriting.

You want these clowns to come teach us? It looks like we should be sending teachers over there to learn them a thing or two. Here I am, a Singaporean, kicking these Native English Speakers' asses in English. By all measures, my English was better than theirs. Let me remind you that I was 16 and they were 18. Not that anyone's counting.

I was gearing up to write a letter to the Straits Times about the issue. I felt that we were making ourselves look stupid by valuing overseas English and English instruction while neglecting the excellent teachers we already have here on our own soil. Perhaps we should be looking to the English teachers in Singapore who are doing things right, and have them share their methods with the teachers who are prompting politicians to seek ang mohs who at the age of 18 were barely able to scrape together a 500 word essay on a topic of their choice. But if you think about it, letters to the ST are futile. If they do end up printing it, all I'm going to get in return is citizen apathy and a possible black mark next to my name. It turns out, however that someone has already said everything that I wanted to say in my letter succintly and humourously. I present to you Ruby Pan (whose name is really familiar - someone help me out, why would I know her?):

On a completely different note, here's another recipe:

Red Clam Rotini
1 can baby clams (drained, reserve the liquid)
1 can (5oz) tomato paste
300g fresh tomatoes (chopped)
Garlic (chopped)
~100g dried Rotini (cooked)
~1 tbsp Dried Basil
~2 tbsp Chilli Flakes (optional)
~2 tbsp Parmesan Cheese

1. Saute the Garlic (I would use as much as you like, I used as much as I had in the kitchen). When slightly browned, add the chopped tomatoes and clams.
2. When mixture is fragrant and tomatoes are out of their skins add the reserved clam juice, tomato paste, chilli flakes and basil.
3. Cook over medium heat until the consistency is where you want it. Add rotini. Serve with parmesan cheese.

posted by Joie! at 11:09 a.m.


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