Someone I know very well has this rather amusing habit: He talks normally, with Malaysian ‘lahs‘ and intonation, but the moment he meets someone who is not from Malaysia, or someone who hasn’t lived in Malaysia for quite a while, he changes his accent and suddenly sounds like a rather constipated Queen of England with a numb tongue. He then proceeds to wave his hand imitating a dying fish rolling on a boat, transforming into a parasol-wielding, lace-wearing lady while asking for a cup of Earl Grey, with lemon.
Alright, fine, that may be a wild exaggeration but the fact remains: he changes his accent to what he deems an “English” one whenever he meets others who speak in an “English” way. And he is not alone. Plenty of people do this, and I’m sure some of you readers ( yes, you!) are equally guilty of this.
Why is this so? Why do we have an inferiority complex over our accents? Why do we have to change our accents in a botched attempt to sound more “high class”?
Hold your horses though. Before moving on, I would like to clarify a few matters. Firstly, this article is directed towards those who have a Malaysian accent but change it when talking to certain kinds of persons, NOT those who have had an international school upbringing, or lived in a foreign country for a number of years. I’m talking about the two-faced, or rather, two-tongued people. Secondly, I would like to confess something: I have been guilty of this “crime”.
As someone who takes part in public speaking competitions, I have been well aware that a good speaker should appear genuine, original, and above all, relatable. And so, it has always been a personal policy to sound natural, i.e. Malaysian. I cringe at the attempts of others to sound more “high class”. After receiving the title of runner-up in a national level competition, it was my good fortune to be sent to London as Malaysia’s representative. There, I encountered countless other public speakers who spoke in a variety of accents. In an effort to fit in, I started changing my accent slightly, little by little, just to sound more “normal”. And when it finally came to the day of the competition, it was in that altered accent I spoke in. I didn’t make it through. The judges commented that I didn’t sound genuine enough.
Later during the competition, I befriended a guy from Ghana. He spoke in a heavy African accent, elongating and stressing syllables, so that words like ‘insurrection” sounded like “innn- sorr-reck-shan”. He didn’t change his accent and made no attempt at changing how he sounded or who he was. He made it to the finals, speaking about the importance of loving one’s country and cherishing one’s identity. He was voted “Audience Favourite”, one of the reasons being the beauty of his natural accent, accompanied by the authenticity of his message. In other words, he was there as a representative of Ghana, and he embodied his speech. Afterwards while discussing the competition with him and sharing my initial feelings of inferiority, he said to me:
“Your country, like mine, spent years under colonial rule. Why should you subject yourself to ‘their accent, and their way’ again? You represent Malaysia, be Malaysian; there is nothing to ashamed about.”
I have never forgotten his words. In the months after the competition, I have often thought about my accent, my identity. I’ve realized that an English accent does not necessarily mean one speaks good English; in fact, the English say that the Scots, Americans, Australians, and the Welsh can’t speak English for nuts. I’ve realized that our accents add to our uniqueness and are to be cherished, not hidden. I’ve realized that, in the words of Sean Connery:
“To cultivate an English accent is already a departure from who you are.”
A friend in international school said that us Malaysians probably have to start adopting an American accent to fit in. I only have one answer to that: Hell, no! People should accept us for who we are, and embrace our uniqueness. And if we all start sounding like Americans, that wouldn’t be very international now, would it?
At the end of it all, I pepper my sentences with ‘lah’ and ‘mah’. I don’t pronounce Bangsar as if it’s the latest gun or explosive (Bang! Sehr). I sometimes exclaim “Walao eh!” and call for a “Teh Tarik” and not “that peculiar tea that the locals seem to pull”. All this, without compromising the quality of my English. I sound Malaysian, and damn I’m proud of it!