Saturday, April 16, 2016

Speaking your soul in a foreign language

Rebecca Tan, "Accent Adaptation (On sincerity, spontaneity, and the distance between Singlish and English, The Pennsylvania Gazette 2/18/2016:
Every international student will surely find this idea of performance familiar. The most difficult thing about speaking in a foreign country isn’t adopting a new currency of speech, but using it as though it’s your own—not just memorizing your lines, but taking center stage and looking your audience in the eye. It is one thing to pronounce can’t so that it rhymes with ant instead of aunt, but a whole other order to do that without feeling like a fraud.

Two years ago, one of my friends left Singapore to attend an international school in Shanghai. She returned with a vaguely American inflection, a kind of slow, methodical drawl that sounded especially conspicuous against the efficient gushing that constitutes Singaporean speech. I remember her telling me how frustrating it was when people asked if she could “turn it off,” like it was a faucet—if she could just erase those two years of her life as though they had left no imprint on her whatsoever. “When you’re alone in a foreign country,” she confided, “all you will want to do is feel like you belong.”

When you’re grappling with things as heavy as loneliness and disconnection—when you have to simultaneously worry about your parents, mid-terms, laundry, and the cost of your education—changing your accent really just feels like survival. [...]

Lately I’ve been wondering if I’ve taken this whole language situation a tad too personally. Till now, I have kept my Singaporean inflection close at hand, for fear that attempts at Americanisms will be wrong—or, worse, permanent. Yet I am beginning to feel myself grow tired of this stage fright, tired of this senseless preoccupation with the packaging of ideas rather than the ideas themselves. Away from all these theatrics, the simple facts are that I am 9,500 miles away from home, and will be for four more years. I came here looking for change, and the words forming in my mouth to accommodate that change are not jokes, lies, or betrayals. They are real, not strange, and they are mine.

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