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Speaking in tongues

What does your accent tell about you? Cat and Nat discuss what it means to 'sound' English or American

Published on January 27, 2008

 Cat says

Most of the Anglo-Saxon world categorises people by how their speech measures up to a dominant standard. This is especially true in England, where people are often defined by their accents. Accents can tell if certain people belong to certain stereotypes.

Even in Disney films, characters are stereotyped by their accents. Somehow villains always end up speaking with a distinguished English accent, such as Scar from "The Lion King", and Jaffar from "Aladdin".

Many British people have preconceptions of others on the basis of their accents. It was something I learned while studying and living in England. Initially I thought all British people spoke English the same way. Little did I know that there are so many regional and class differences in Britain.

Now, like all Brits, I can differentiate the differences in people's social, economical and regional backgrounds by just listening to them speak.

When I was a foreigner studying in England, English was my second language, I spoke very little when I first arrived at boarding school in the northern town of York. However by the time I left my school, I had managed to cultivate an accent that allowed me to hide behind my true identity when speaking to someone on the phone.

I didn't pick up a Yorkshire accent, as you might have expected. Instead I ended up with what many British people would describe as a British public-school accent! I often get comments from English people describing me as being "very English", or more English than the English.

To master an English accent is perhaps not as difficult as you may think. Many of Hollywood's great actresses have managed to do it. Meryl Streep's accent was perfect in "The French Lieutenant's Woman". Subsequently Gwyneth Paltrow, Renee Zellweger and Reese Witherspoon all managed to convince us they were born English.

Conversely, English actors tend to have great difficulties in mastering American accents, they all tend to be more comfortable sticking to their own accents, which limits the roles they can take on. According to my American friends, Hugh Laurie does a very good American accent in the TV series "House". He is certainly one of the most convincing English actors acting as an American.

Every language has its accents. Ironically I speak Mandarin with a mild Shanghai accent since my mother tongue is Shanghainese. I can speak fluent Cantonese, but when I do so I also have a slight Shanghai accent. Strangely enough, my accent in English is much more correct than when I speak Mandarin and Cantonese.

I recently watched Ang Lee's latest film, "Lust Caution". Although it's been reviewed by many Western critics, no one has commented on the Chinese dialects in the film. The dialogue is mainly in Mandarin with a few lines of Shanghainese and Cantonese thrown in.

Award-winning actress Joan Chen speaks both Mandarin and Shanghainese beautifully. So does the young actress Tang Wei, who has mastered all three dialects to perfection. However, Tony Leung's Mandarin is heavily accented - not a Shanghai accent but a Hong Kong one. His character, Mr Yee, is supposed to be from Shanghai!

I can't understand why the casting director thought Tony Leung was suitable for the role in the first place. I presume they thought his ability to perform a convincing sex scene was enough to make up for his failure to lose his Hong Kong accent.

Nat says

 At a cocktail party in one of Bangkok's most

prestigious hotels, a young woman smiles and looks at me over her champagne glass. "You sound American," she says, with a bit of shyness. I should feel flattered, shouldn't I, when a beautiful woman flirts with me.

And I truly would have been happy, but for the fact that I was speaking to her in Thai.

No matter what I do, I can't get rid of my American accent. I was born here, spent plenty of time here when I wasn't at boarding school and have lived here for the past 20 years to no avail. People still insist on speaking to me in English after they hear me speaking Thai. When I'm on the phone, it gets positively annoying.

It's worse when I'm tired. I can hear it as soon as the words come out of my mouth. The tones are all wrong. All my L's start to sound like R's or vice versa. When I try to fix it, I sound like I'm speaking Japanese.

Some people find my accent an affectation. I once overheard a waitress complain, "I can't stand these spoiled brats who go overseas for a year and come back unable to speak their own language." Did she seriously think that, because I have an American accent, I'd lost my hearing?

No matter, I fixed that waitress' wagon. After paying my bill, I left her a tip that consisted of all the 25 satang coins I had, steeping in an inverted glass of water. An accent isn't the only trick I learned in boarding school.

And then there are people who dislike my accent when I'm speaking English. Apparently, years of studying on America's east coast and then attending graduate school in England have left me sounding pretentious.

But it's only British people, for whom accents can carry social stigma, who feel that way. In America, where I grew up, there are plenty of regional accents that denote not only geographical origin but also social class.

I won't deny that having a Brooklyn accent may make people feel the speaker is uneducated but, in America, there isn't as much judgement about how one speaks.

But the problem with any accent is that it will give you away. There's no avoiding it. Okay, I admit that I'm a spoiled brat who had the benefit of a good education. I'm not ashamed of the fact that my parents made my education a priority. When I was learning to speak English everyone wanted to make sure I learned to speak properly. What's wrong with having succeeded?

It's the backlash of reverse snobbery. You hear it on the BBC. In an effort to be politically inclusive, their newscasters have all sorts of accents.

But, from the standpoint of someone who at one time struggled to understand what people were saying when they spoke English, I prefer CNN, where most people have a standard voice. Yes, there's the occasional Aussie or Brit but, for the most part, wherever you go in America, you switch on the news and all the newscasters have the same accent, without regional variation. It's easier to understand. That's a good thing, isn't it?

Listen, the way I speak is the way I speak. I am not putting on any airs. If I could change my accent I would start speaking Thai the way everyone else here does.

Besides, it isn't where you come from, it's where you're going.

But I won't get far, will I, if no one understands me when I ask for directions?

Want an opinion on something? Cat and Nat can be contacted at


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