Of accents and English


I read something about regional accents being eroded by TV (in this case, the particularly heavy one in Maine) and it got me thinking about the subject of that and how true it is.

I’ve seen people go overseas for barely 6 months and come back armed with heavily accented Aussie/American English, complete with the appropriate slang. Some of them are obviously affected (a nicer term for faked or forced) but it could be argued that they just spent more time hanging with the locals.

Well, I have a pretty good command of the language but my verbal enunciation is sadly lagging way behind the clear grasp I have of the written form.

…and I come from a small town that speaks minimal English and only started using it on a daily basis when I went to New Zealand when I was 15.

I was doing Form Six English and I still can’t figure out if it’s reverse racism that the teacher keeps pointing out to the entire classroom that I’m the best in the class despite it being my second language. I didn’t do ESL (English as a Second Language) like the majority of non-Kiwis there, I went to the regular class.

…and I don’t think Chinese is my first language. I can certainly speak it fluently but can’t write a single cohesive sentence. That is an overstatement, I can’t even make sense of anything except a handful of basic characters. I never bothered learning, it was too hard and my mom didn’t insist when I was a kid unlike the other subjects coz it wasn’t in UPSR (our primary school graduation aptitude test).

I also did my four years of college and university in Melbourne and spent most of the time hanging around Aussies for simple reasons – the lifestyle I was living at that time with (real) raves/doofs and substances is a niche that not many Asians participate in.

Which leaves childhood, since that is the time when language retention is at its highest. I didn’t watch a lot of TV as a kid, it was frowned upon and strictly regulated by my parents. However, I enjoyed reading at a very young age, graduating to age-inappropriate material and adult novels before I even hit puberty.

(which was encouraged by my mom at least)

I still love reading for pleasure – in fact, I’ve somehow conditioned myself to be constipated unless there’s reading material nearly (back home there’s always the latest TIME magazine or National Geographic in the toilet). Hell, I still need to read the news or an ebook when I’m taking a shit nowadays.

Anyway, back to the accent, I’ve never quite figured it out (except for the affected cases) – do people who watch more TV when they’re under 12 years old speak better English?

What is your personal experience?

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45 thoughts on “Of accents and English”

    • Interesting! I do watch TV series after though, but that was way past the years where I was at the best for absorbing languages.

      There is a reason why kids learn languages faster than adults ever could.

      I wish I had learned Chinese back then, it would be awesome to be able to write. πŸ™‚

  1. Read/write and speak/listen requires different skills altogether. It is the same for any language. Of course there are people who excel in both. The difference I see it is that, to speak well, you need to think fast, so fast that words already started forming way before you were suppose to speak it. Somehow automatically, your brain finds the words to represent your expression effortlessly. Most people who can give a speech without much preparation belong to this category. To write well is a lot easier, for the simple fact that you have all the time in the world to think of how to word things properly. You can even proof read it and correct all the errors/grammars etc. So any person who is not lazy can churn out a piece of properly crafted email/essay etc.

    • Nice summation! πŸ™‚

      I totally agree with you on this.

      I can speak it well, just not enunciate it well, I tend to talk too fast and have to make an effort to talk slower so people can understand me.

      I can always wing a speech too, and I love public speaking so based on that I guess I do have the innate skills for thinking fast.

      The problem again, is that I talk way too fast in an attempt to keep up with my thoughts, which is not a good thing at all.

      I was thinking more about whether learning how to speak it well is related to watching TV or some other similar learning-based interaction as a kid…coz I’ve met a lot of people who can speak alright (at first impression) but can’t write well at all.

      …and after a while, you notice that there are basic grammar and vocabulary errors in their speech too.

      I was wondering if that is related to some kind of auditory learning process in their childhood.

      Cheers mate! πŸ™‚

    • HAHAHA

      Oh well, that was just a generic shot I took…let’s see, two weeks ago to this very day according to the date on the photo.

      I was intrigued by the story and took a photo and sent it via Whatsapp to a friend.

      It was just a stock photo that I used…it’s a Singapore news snippet.

      Cheers mate! πŸ™‚

    • Oh yeah, you’ve brought in a good point there…

      The subtitles in another language can impede the auditory learning process…or it can *enhance* it, creating associations between two different languages.

      …or it’s simply a null factor since subtitles are effectively ignored by people who can understand, it’s an annoyance at best and kids learn fast.

      Good point though Sherrie! πŸ™‚

      Oh, I don’t mean about spelling, I was just wondering if auditory learning can translate to retention and verbal output.


  2. Hmmm…I found that expressing myself in writing is far more easy than expressing it out verbally. I try to read more books and listen to radio, but nowadays even deejays are speaking manglish. I’ve been using english to converse with my boy since he was born. I hope this can provide a good foundation for him.

    • Yeah me too! πŸ™‚

      I’m the same way, it’s easier to pen down thoughts then to verbalize it – maybe the conversion from the abstract (thinking) to output (writing/speaking) is different for different people.

      However, I love to give public speeches though even though my enunciation is horrible.

      That’s great! It’ll be a good foundation for your boy for sure, that’s what my parents did when we were kids too.

      Cheers buddy! πŸ™‚

  3. Tricky one….From a young age, I spoke both Chinese and English with my family, and Malaysian with my nannies. When I got to school, I spoke primarily English with my friends with a smattering of “Bahasa Sarawak” here and there. I am pretty much worthless when it comes to written Chinese, and slowly but surely losing my ability to write (above the written level of a 6th grader) in Bahasa Malaysia.

    When I was younger, we would watch an equal number of both British and American TV shows, so I am not entirely sure where my accent comes from. I can as easily switch between our Manglish as I can into an American accent. I have also been living in Minnesota for almost 14 years now, so maybe this is just how it works? An evolution of speech/accent over time?

    Mayhaps I can record myself talking or reading, and you be the judge. You down for that? LOL

    • Nice! Yeah, if you’re living in the states that would be a huge factor. πŸ™‚

      I think I have totally lost my ability to converse in Bahasa Malaysia, it’s a struggle for me to string together coherent sentences – both spoken and written. Heh.

      I’m pretty sure this is a case of “use it or lose it” and I haven’t used much of BM since high school.

      Haha! That would certainly be interesting, hearing you speak.

      I was wondering if childhood exposure has an effect on your accent regardless of where you are but since you have been living in the states for so many years, constant exposure would certainly shift you towards the local accent.

      Cheers! πŸ™‚

      • My ADHD brain forgot to talk about my childhood accent….well, I think I switched between our regular Malaysian accent when in school (didn’t want to be ostracized LOL) and an American accent whenever we traveled or when I was conversing with my parents at home. I guess I always had an American accent and we (my parents and myself) have no idea where it would have come from.

        Accents never bothered me when conversing with people anyway – as long as I can understand you, we are all kosher amirite? πŸ™‚

        • Yup, I totally agree with that! πŸ™‚

          It’s all good if we can understand each other.

          I’m just wondering if people can pick it up as kids – I’m now pretty sure they can. I know a few people without English speaking environments but purely watching TV and their English is accented as such coz that’s where they learned the language! πŸ™‚

          Yours would be naturally from your parents since you all converse that way.

          Cheers for the input Dar! πŸ˜€

  4. Dude, yeah I noticed that as well when we first met, you didn’t have the accent I was expecting from your writing. Certain people can pick up accent easier that others, I think it’s the gift of picking up speech intonation and speech pattern, those “asshole” who likes to mock others for fun (cruel racist joke) seems to have an upper hand in adopting another accent.

    There is this Malaysian blogger who speaks with a strange Assie-Brit hybrid accent with generous use of American Slang just by visiting the country….amazing oral skills πŸ™‚

    I do notice many Malaysian, especially from KL, speaks a little fast, perhaps influence from the Indian speaking community. Do you notice Sibu ppl tend to make short”n” to long “ng” sound. Example, the car brand Nissan, would would like Nissang. It’s from the Foochow speech pattern …even when they speak Mandarin, “Nee-men” would sound like “Nee-meng”.

    • Heh! Yeah, I don’t, I just speak the way I do.

      Hey, you’ve got a point there, some people just have a knack for it, like the people who can do great impersonations of personalities.

      Haha! Oh well, I guess it is what it is.

      Hmm…good question mate, I don’t know since I’m pretty sure I speak faster than the majority of people so I have to constantly slow down.

      I know what you’re talking about though – even though I’m not Foochow and only learned the dialect after Mandarin it didn’t have an impact on me.

      Cheers mate! πŸ™‚

  5. “…age-inappropriate material and adult novels before I even hit puberty.

    (which was encouraged by my mom at least)…”

    Now, where is that clause in brackets supposed to go? Wink! Wink! LOL!!!!

      • Heh! Well, it was good coz I can be exposed to a lot of different genres as a kid.

        Books were always welcome in our home.

        My mom and dad reads a lot too. πŸ™‚

        Thanks Merryn!

    • HAHAHA

      Well, I remember several sexually charged books (like Gerald’s Game) which I read when I was 10 years old – was a huge fan of Stephen King (still am) and bought a lot of his books whenever we went to KL (I’ve only found one Sibu bookstore at that time which carries his books – the one beside the nasi briyani where I bumped into you as a kid when I was eating with my dad or mom beside HSBC).

      I’m not bothered by it, the STD government propaganda with graphic photos of demented rotten genitalia my mom brought back from school was a larger shock to my young brain at that time. Haha.

      Cheers buddy!

  6. Watching tv alone may not help. Using the language (speaking) in the home may be a big determining factor and for some, the tv may help hone their accent. But that need not mean they can write well – as in the case of your Mandarin, and likewise,many abroad, Caucasian and otherwise, from English and English alone-speaking homes are hopeless at spelling and writing.

    Personally, I don’t think the accent is important – unless it is so bad that the listener fails to comprehend what is being said but I would cringe at horrendously-bad grammar. Nothing is more off-putting that people trying to speak with a put-on accent and their grammar is all over the place – no sense of tenses, subject-verb agreement and all that. With such individuals, never mind the accent, one can tell an NCAA (no class at all) “fake” from a mile away…based on the grammar.

    • Hey, good point there buddy!

      Yeah, I think that’s a big factor too – exposure during childhood, but a lot of kids don’t speak English at home and just watch TV and gets an accent from all that. I think it’s possible at that very young formative age, but not after you get older, these language retention skills are learnt at childhood, it becomes a lot harder after you’re past a certain age.

      Yup, I agree, as long as people can understand you it’s all good. I have to speak slower sometimes for that. Heh.


      Good one there buddy! πŸ™‚

    • Haha! It was an article that I thought was pretty funny – saw in a Singapore newspaper and sent it to a friend via Whatsapp.

      That article is hilarious in itself.

      Cheers Merryn! πŸ™‚

  7. and i was wondering what’s with the picture and the contents of the post. I am one that writes better than I speak. When I was in Primary school, I couldn’t even string one perfect sentence in english until I mix with friends who converse in English. It’s the people you mix with that will influence how you speak but i still can’t stand those fake accents.

    • Haha! It was just an article I thought was funny and since I only took it two weeks ago, it’s still on my computer within easy reach so I thought it would go well with this post. πŸ™‚

      I think the most of that is learned when you’re a kid, primary school still qualifies but after you reach a certain age, it becomes very hard to learn new languages, so I agree that some of those who suddenly sprouts an affected accent is certainly dubious – it’s just that – affected as in painstakingly learned and things like that doesn’t last and requires a conscious effort to maintain.

      I remember reading something that shows people reverting to their first language when in crisis e.g. if you’re in mortal danger, the way you say “Help!” will be your first language.

      In that case, I think with the childhood I had, I’ll probably say “God!” instead considering my Christian upbringing. πŸ˜‰

  8. My written English is way better than my spoken…. have been living in the city for too long. My fluency in Chinese isn’t that great either. People who have heard me speaking in both languages will agree to that. I agree with suituapui; accents doesn’t quite matter as long as the listeners can understand what the speaker is trying to say.

    When I was a 12-year-old kid watching countless episodes of Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer, it didn’t really help with my English pronunciation. It took my Kiwi teacher and my Mom to correct it. So yeah, there has to be an environment for the speaker.

    • Yeah, I totally agree with that too. πŸ™‚

      As long as it’s understandable. It’s just that I’ve gotten wondering about how watching TV without speaking English as a kid can affect verbal skills – it seems that it can, and produce an accent to boot, but it only holds true if that’s the way they learned English as a kid.

      Exclusively via TV I mean.

      I also think that an environment has to be there but some people seem to be able to pull it off if they learned as kids. I can’t.

      Cheers Ciana! πŸ™‚

    • No worries mate!

      You can always pick it up here and then. It’s just harder to pick up languages when you’re older but not impossible.

      Cheers bro! πŸ™‚

  9. Interesting. I also cannot understand (or stand) people who speak with super affected fake accents. I don’t believe living overseas/spending time with locals makes one lose their original accent UNLESS that person does not speak a word of the language to begin with. For example, some of my Asian friends in Australia speak with the true-blue Aussie accent – that’s because they migrated over when they were young and at the time of migration, they speak next to zero English. My dad speaks Japanese like a Japanese local but before he picked up the language in Japan, he did not understand/speak a word of Japanese.

    I have spent 9 years in Australia (education and work) and I still retain my original accent when speaking English. Although to tell the truth my accent is never the completely Malaysian-Malaysian accent to begin with!

    Cantonese is my mother tongue and I attended 11 years of Chinese schools but my written Chinese is atrocious although I speak/understand Mandarin well. I’m not a TV person because my parents don’t like TV – and my acquired level of English command came from pain-staking home-tutoring with my half British mother (who speaks Cantonese fluently but absolutely dismal in Mandarin) since the age of 5. It was through her that I devoloped the love of reading, and I finished 80% of Enid Blyton’s books by age 12. πŸ˜‰

    Therefore I think the command of a language comes from listening/speaking – hence the environment, but reading is something that plays a huge part as well. I remember Chinese school classmates asking me “how do I improve my English”, and I always recommend reading the newspapers. And it works. πŸ™‚

    • Yeah, I know what you mean! πŸ™‚

      It’s impossible to lose your original accent unless you make an effort to change it…

      …and I mentioned in a previous comment, that has to be affected, and it’ll take a lot of effort to maintain it, constantly guarding yourself and being self aware of way you speak all the time.

      It has got to be exhausting and in a way I kinda feel sorry for people who have a need to do that.

      I read somewhere that you’ll revert to your mother tongue when you’re in times of extreme crisis e.g. when you’re in so much danger you can’t think – the way you say “Help!” will be indicative of the first language you learned.

      I find that quite intriguing.

      I also never lost (or changed rather) my original accent, didn’t feel a need to, just like I didn’t pick up a “Christian name” (which is a huge misnomer) coz my parents named me and I felt no need to change it – it can be hard to remember, but people either do or don’t, it’s up to them to make the effort, just as I make the effort to remember difficult names. πŸ™‚

      I’m also raised in a similar environment! Haha! I loved Enid Blyton as a kid too – can’t remember how many times I fought with my sister over Mallory Towers (which I’ll read till the end and then start from the first book – the original Harry Potter in terms of addictiveness).

      Thanks for sharing Jyannis! πŸ™‚

  10. but i do feel irritating when a famous local chinese radio station DJ’s doing the hong kong accent on english words. y can’t they copy patrick teoh’s original m’sian style

  11. This is gonna be quite a looong reply so hold your breath.

    Growing up in a country where English is rarely if ever the first language of most of the population, I’m guessing I’m one of the few in the local Chinese community with English as a first language. My expatriate mom (she hails from Hong Kong, way back in the colonial days) was an English teacher at a private schools back home in Kuching. Both my parents met overseas in Canada which is predominantly an English speaking country although you might find the occasional French speaking Quebecois.

    On another note, I remember my mom getting the cane from the top of the cupboard when that ONE time, I presented her my primary school report card with a B+ in English. Needless to say I never got anything below an A for English even until now when I’m halfway through with college.

    I remember my parents making my brother and I each read aloud 2 – 5 pages of the Peter and Jane series of children’s books every night before bedtime. In later years when I was finally allowed to indulge in coffee like the rest of the grownups I would join my dad at the breakfast table and share the morning paper before school. This graduated to reading the papers while taking a dump. In secondary school, my English essays were at least 2 full A4 pages (sadly, the same can’t be said about my Chinese and Bahasa Melayu language essays). Watching TV wasn’t really encouraged in the household but that’s something I never really took to anyways (unless it involved the Food Network or AFC). Even now, living a student life away from home without a TV in the house doesn’t bother me one bit.

    But there’s one thing that bothers and puzzles me even until now. Most of my peers who do speak English as a second language often consider those who speak English primarily (like myself) to come from upper-class families which is something I don’t understand. Again this trend is seen in my Malaysian-Chinese peers (sad but true). And yes, it still bothers me.

    And now, I shall quote your entry:

    “I’ve seen people go overseas for barely 6 months and come back armed with heavily accented Aussie/American English, complete with the appropriate slang. Some of them are obviously affected (a nicer term for faked or forced) but it could be argued that they just spent more time hanging with the locals..”

    Yes I’ve seen alot of that too. But I do have an uncle who’s since been married to a Canadian and now has kids of his own. He’s developed a very convincing and authentic Canadian accent which is understandable considering the fact that he’s been living in Canada for the the past 30 odd years. That being said he still speaks my family dialect of teochew flawlessly and without accent (thankfully, I can’t bring myself to imagine otherwise). My own parent’s have spent 7 years in Canada apiece and have little or no trace of a Canadian accent or slang.

    That being said, having friends and family coming from cultural backgrounds as varied as a bowl or rojak MIGHT change you. While having conversations with foreigner friends, especially those from North America or Britain (touchΓ©) I occasionally catch myself unconsciously adopting their accent.

    And that’s my personal experience.

    • Thanks for sharing Glenn! πŸ™‚

      That’s quite an insightful one there, cheer for taking the trouble to write it.

      I totally agree with you on that, staying there for ages would have an impact undoubtedly, I’ve seen the reverse happen too e.g. Caucasians adopting Malaysian style slang and can speak with a local accent but also their native ones.

      Yup, I guess environment has something to do with it, was wondering about childhood though and yeah there is that perception eh?

      Not so much in Sibu though, at least in my school coz a lot of middle income families speak English at home and send their children overseas (a great many if you compare to other states and cities).

      I have the same prodigious output in essays too. My teachers loved it. Heh.

      Cheers buddy! πŸ™‚

  12. I did quite a lot of reading in my childhood days and I really do think it helped me improve my command of written English. Later, in my teenage years, I was more glued to the TV (no thanks to Astro!) and I think that phase helped me improve my spoken English. I enjoyed a bit of both worlds but ultimately, I still think that I write better than I speak.

    • Thanks for the input Vincent! πŸ™‚

      I think my learning process is quite similar to yours, and if I really make an effort to enunciate and speak slower I could probably even things out.

      I didn’t have Astro as a kid though, wasn’t invented yet. Haha. Not even in my teens. πŸ™‚

      Cheers bro!

  13. English is my first language, spoken and written, second being Chinese (very basic spoken) and Malay (spoken and written). At times, will slip into speaking English with different accent when making explanation – depends on who i am speaking to at the time. It seems necessary at times to have little changes in accent and inflection when speaking with different people as a means of communicating better, and to fit in. I do care for perfect grammar and spelling on paper. Verbally, I only care to get the point across.

    • Good point there!

      I guess we subconsciously do it sometimes, I mean, I certainly perk up my enunciation and slow down the rate of speech when people don’t understand me.

      I do the same switch-language thing too, it’s totally natural I think for multilingual people, we just don’t realize it until someone comments on it e.g. a pure Chinese speaker asking me what I meant when I inject English words into a sentence but that’s how I used to communicate even in that language, we substitute words. Heh.

      Cheers mate! πŸ™‚

  14. this is how i speak mah…

    dont be like dat one…

    accent? wat accent? you talking about hyundai accent issit? that car not bad leh…


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