Of Asians and local accents
Published on: Tuesday, January 28, 2020
By: Jason Hung
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I have been residing in the United States, the United Kingdom, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong and mainland China in the past decade. Very often have I been talking to local born and bred Asians who either study or work in Asia or in a native-English-speaking country.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, international students are often categorised into westernised and localised cohorts. The former group, in part, refers to individuals whose lifestyles and symbolic identities are in line with the mainstream western cultures. Alternatively, the latter group refers to those who study abroad but stick to communities and social groups of their own heritage and are culturally non-westernalised.

In mid-2019, a native New Yorker told me, for example, Hong Kong students in London who were studying in international schools speak with elegant British accents, while those who were placed in local schools speak “so Asians”. I have heard similar dialogues from native-English speakers for many times where accents are a salient and significant symbolic identity to define how “banana” we, as Asians, are.

Many of my Asians friends are frustrating whenever native English speakers asked them which Asia’s countries they come from; while those who are “praised” by native English speakers as “speaking English very well” or even “speaking English natively” are often satisfied. From a symbolic perspective, the accent, to some extent, affects the self-esteem of an individual: If an individual speaks with local English accents, their confidence can, more or less, be damaged.

Linguistically, academic literature and studies have been researching on how individuals speak English with an accent would experience in a western world. Results revealed that those speaking with a non-native English accent, alongside those speaking non-fluently, often face more “language discrimination” than their counterparts who are “banana-enough”.

For students who are residing in Asia, similar situations occur. When I was working in Bangkok, for example, some south Asian and southeast Asian co-workers of mine complained about that their local English accents caused adverse impact on how they were treated in everyday life. For example, when ordering food during lunch time, some co-workers found the way they were serviced was not as customer-friendly as their native-English-speaking counterparts.

In Jakarta, additionally, my girlfriend said having a boyfriend who is westernised, to some extent, is a privilege. Individuals enjoying such a privilege often cause “peer envy”. Moreover, from my experience, local artists often combine some English words whenever they are speaking Indonesian – in which locals are inclined to follow such a cultural trend. My girlfriend explained being westernised, directly or indirectly, is just like buying branded clothes and bags in Indonesia.

People can easily look up upon you whenever you are “not too localised” and “more westernised”.

An American Chinese barber, which I met in California months ago, said whenever she visited Hong Kong, she was mistreated by local dwellers and was subject to poor services. Once she, however, spoke in native English, the way she was serviced was extremely different. 

Speaking English sounds important for Asians. More importantly, speaking native English earns you, subtle or not, privileges. No matter living in a native-English-speaking country or an Asia’s country, a native English accent improves your lifestyles.

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