I’m literally fresh from a discourse with a friend who was sharing an account about a guy mimicking a Russian accent to her (she is Ukrainian). She called it impolite and that she would like to see him try having a conversation with her in her language. It brought me back to an exchange I intervened on a few years ago at an old job where one of my closest friends, who is Greek, had to refer to Borough (in London) to her manager, an English woman, who giggled in response. This manager also said, “Aw, that’s so cute.”
Knowing my girl has had to deal with this type of patronising rhetoric before from this same woman, she rolled her eyes and decided to stop talking. I then turned to the manager and asked, “What’s cute?”
“Her accent,” she said.
“It’s just cute when she says ‘Borough’, it’s like she says ‘borrow’.”
I proceeded to challenge her and ask “but why? It’s the way she says it, why is it cute?” Then the manager starts stumbling on her words, bringing up the French girl who works upstairs also sounding cute because of her accent.
I can’t remember my exact words but it was among the lines of gently criticising her for making fun of someone’s accent, which is wrong. The manager didn’t quite know what to say and then wrapped up the conversation really quick and left.
I’ve been mocked my whole life about my accent because I sound English and I live in Malaysia. Locals here love to poke fun at how “British” I sound and I’m tired of it. Yeah, all right, we all know I can sound hella posh when I talk (I don’t think I do, sometimes maybe, but I have also picked up London slang whilst I lived in Lewisham which is far from ‘Queen’s English’). I am also met with sugary sweet smiles by British folk who hear me speak with my Malaysian accent, in a manner of “Aw, that’s cute.” In fact, on a date with this English guy I was seeing, who I considered fairly cultured, chuckled and even said it was cute when I put on my Malaysian accent. I bit back, “Why?” And much like the story I described above, he didn’t really have a proper answer.
It’s a touchy subject for me, I won’t lie, because it plays into the whole identity crisis I have grown up with, what with being biracial; never feeling like I belong anywhere and, in any attempt to assimilate, I’m teased on my differences. My accent is a very conspicuous feature of mine that sets me apart from a lot of people — it sounds foreign to my home country, it also sounds posher and my vocabulary might be considered impressive, which suggests my class, previous education, status and perhaps even my monetary worth, and it surprises people that, as a woman of Asian descent, I can speak so fluently and confidently. From all walks of life I’ve struggled with blending in and having to either code my speech or dilute my accent so people don’t feel suddenly inclined to either make a joke, pass a comment or point it out to begin with. It also doesn’t help that when I do speak Malay, it’s a joke as I don’t sound authentic or local, which again, I hold a huge chip on my shoulder about because it’s a reminder that I don’t really belong, that I never really have and probably never really will. (Side note: Even if I suddenly tightened up my linguistic abilities and spoke Malay eloquently enough to be mistaken for a purely native Malay, something else will be raised as my “otherness” like my looks or dress sense, you know, material things).
Naturally, I’ve picked up multiple colloquials, slang and cadences from the content I consume, the writing I’ve read and the people I’ve either met and conversed with or watched on screen so I do slip in and out of varying tones and language habits depending on who I’m with and what we are talking about. It has acted as a coping mechanism for me, as it would for anyone, in order for me to be more relatable, trustworthy with the company I’m talking to, and that, for use of a better term, “speaking their language”. If you’ve read Trevor Noah’s sensational book, Born A Crime, you see the paramount role language plays in breaking down barriers and creating relationships. By making fun of an accent, any endeavours to build trust and connection is defeated and undermined.
Our accents are kind of like projections of what we want to convey to people and who we are. You can often spot from a mile away someone who is trying too hard with theirs (I’m looking at the ones who keep adopting AAVE to sound urban, hip, cool and relevant). But there are also limitations, and some people’s ability to adapt the way they talk comes easier than others, hence why you might find people living abroad from their home countries for years, even decades, whose accents have not wavered.
I do find most commonly, and this possibly is because my own experiences have centred around English-speaking people as opposed to ethnic groups whose languages I don’t speak, that the approach to identifying someone’s non-English sounding accent comes from British people. I know I mentioned above the heat I get from Malaysian locals mocking my English and/or lack of Malay, but it’s fairly imperative to address the recurrences of native English speakers who can’t help themselves from impersonating (quite poorly in most cases) the accents of non-English speakers.
This comes from a history of colonialism — THERE. I SAID IT. And I know a lot of y’all are gonna be thinking “WTF, she ALWAYS brings up colonialism” but if we draw on the facts as to how the empire conquered so many countries globally and the resulting pervasive age-old desire to put down minorities (so as to feel better about themselves or indulge in their lick of superiority) in the cognitive of English folk, it’s hard to divorce the two. The British Empire has inherently taught its descendants that they are great (note the name Great Britain) and reign supreme in civility, nobility and decorum, among plenty of other attributes. This mentality has warranted the attitudes towards other cultures as less than or inferior, even down to the accent because English is the supreme language (by what metric is this measured besides colonisation I am not sure). I can’t help noticing it strikes a stark resemblance to misogynists’ cheap attempts in devaluing and diminishing a woman and her opinions by insulting her appearance, an otherwise completely irrelevant point within the debate.
Mocking an accent contributes to perpetuating stereotypes that anyone whose English is not sufficiently adequate means they are ultimately less clever and sophisticated. It’s not only extremely untrue but offensive and inappropriate, and someone’s accent is not an accurate reflection of their character, integrity and knowledge. The efforts by the minority to overdo the accent by forcing certain pronunciations and flourishing the sentence with too many unnecessary fancy adjectives is often incited by the desire to be taken more seriously and listened to as close to an equal as they can attain. It doesn’t help if visually, a person of South Asian or African ethnicity for example, is hardly seen as qualified to be accepted as a person who is deserving of time and space to speak since their skin colour or their distinctive non-white identity already establishes their lack of importance. The fact that someone has actually taken the time to learn your language portrays not only their abundant patience and intellect to be able to communicate in more than one dialect, but makes you look to be the fool, especially since either you haven’t invested the same amount of energy to learn theirs or you don’t speak any other language besides your own.
So… The next time you want to have a laugh about the way someone vocally expresses themselves, take a hard look at why you find it funny because when it comes down to it, the likelihood is that you finding comic relief in an accent comes from deeply ingrained biases that have shaped your perception of what is desirable, elegant, civilised and sophisticated and what is not, is enormously problematic and needs to be fixed.