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code-switcher

In conversations on May 30, 2007 by carinasuyin

I spent the better half of last week being both irritated and amused with myself. One day during lunch, I caught myself speaking with a Brit accent while conversing with a colleague on my right and then immediately, switching to colloquial English without missing a beat when responding to another colleague on my left. My handphone would ring and I’d be mangling English with bits of Malay, Hokkien and Japanese, right after telling the taxi driver directions in a weird accented Mandarin that’s nowhere between Taipei and Beijing.

On another morning in the office, I find myself listening so intently to a Scottish colleague’s intonation till I was quite sure, had I said something in that instant, I would have sounded utterly and bizarrely Scottish. The same applied when chatting with colleagues from Australia or Hong Kong. There were also the dreaded cricket-call moments when someone would ask me if I had ever studied or lived overseas, and if my parents were 100% Malaysians.

Being among a bunch of native English speakers and Singaporeans with no predilections for absorbing accents, I can’t help but feel conscious of the way I speak. Honestly, if I were somebody else but me, I just might have the impression that I was trying hard to be a Mat Salleh celup. For the first time since a long time, I got stressed when I’m in a conversation! I ended up listening more and running sentences cautiously through my head each time before opening my mouth to give my two cents’ worth on something; a conscious effort to self censor which was downright annoying.

Hear me on the phone speaking Malay and you’ll probably never guess that I am Chinese. Five sentences of rudimentary Spanish were enough to charm a professor from Madrid in Amsterdam. Sometimes, I am told that I have some kind of international accent which people can’t place its origins. I believe I just sound that way whenever I speak English with proper enunciations and devoid of slang. Ah Tan says people get intrigued because my temporal accents sound genuinely convincing rather than mocking or faked.

Perhaps as how Jenn described it, it is an innate ability to dial up or down my English depending on who I am speaking with. Being brought up as a multilingual Malaysian without any confounding influence of a particular mother tongue such as Chinese dialects or the Malay language made it easier to switch between languages. My parents converse with my siblings and me predominantly in English and in the same rojak-ed manner that we picked up all other languages since young. For me, the Malay language was the lingua franca of childhood. Sometimes, I think I may not even have a mother tongue.

I don’t really know if it is a boon or a bane to have the knack of being sensitive to accents and the speech inflections of others. To unconsciously adopt accents and mimic intonations like some kind of linguistic sponge is a hundred times easier to me than picking up a piece of chicken meat with a pair of chopsticks. Like Peter Petrelli in Heroes who absorbs the powers of others and is able to recall them, I absorb accents and reproduce them. As much as I am annoyed silly at times, I am really, happily amazed at myself. I may be phonologically confused but as long as I am understood… I suppose, that is all that matters.

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11 Responses to “code-switcher”

  1. i find myself doing that too! i guess it’s not us trying to be mat salled celups, but just trying to be understood and get messages across, no?

  2. Yeah, but I can imagine it must be perplexing for others 🙂

  3. I get what you mean. Maybe it’s an identity problem. We’re one of those people with “a strange accentless English” (quoted from some book that I can’t recall now) and our brain is not too sure about which accent to apply after we talk to someone else with a strong accent. The Korean and Chinese students here try to sound very American. I guess that’s the direction most of the non-English world is headed. I find myself trying to suppress copying the accents of those Americans/Brits that I speak to and it feels quite weird.

  4. Hi Sooth! Right on… although, technically, we do have an accent- a Malaysian one which is very hard to describe. Personally, I adore the British accent 🙂

  5. its about communication, no? you have to use different accents with different people to communicate with them. i work in a diverse environment and have the same problem. chinese, koreans, japanese, americans, australians, singaporeans and the odd kiwi on multiparty conference calls – sometimes its plain hilarious when you know the american has absolutely no idea with the jap just said but pretends to understand…

    good post. thought provoking. as for adoring the brit accent… maggie cheung speaking english – enough said!

  6. Yeah, it is! Hee… thanks 🙂 Teleconferences are always fun! Oooh yeah, Maggie Cheung’s accent is totally awesome!

  7. no one, and I do mean NO ONE TALKS SHIT ABOUT MAGGIE CHEUNG!!! (you know i am serious when it’s capslocked and I said no one, Twice)

  8. Errr… Encik Lim, ada orang umpat pasal idola anda?

  9. Yeah I do this a lot too. While at uni I supposedly had a central London accent, whatever that means (not Cockney or Saff London?). My American friends thought I had a British accent while my British friends thought I sounded American.

    Of course it all came tumbling down whenever my parents called and my Malaysian sound came out.

    More recently, a dude I hung out with in Chicago thought I was American. Wait til you hear my German or French English accents. (You know, how the European villains in Hollywood movies sound).

    I envisage a day when the everyone in the world speaks without accents. But then I’d be deprived of the pleasure of hearing my favourite accent – Shanghai American!

    =)

  10. Hallo Rashid! Shanghai-American – I wonder how that sounds like!
    A world without accents? Noooo… accents make the world go round 😀

  11. Actually gravity makes the world go round (I think, but I’m no scientist) but accents add the “Wooosh!” sound effect =D

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