“Don’t talk like you’re fresh off the boat,” the man at the counter said without raising his head.
“I beg your pardon?” I was 12 years old, reading Oliver Twist like it was no biggie, and I thought I had graduated from this whole prejudice mess.
“I said, don’t be a bleedin’ FOB in here.” He still wasn’t looking at me, “If you can’t speak English properly, don’t buy my stuff.”
“Here” was a run-down dairy — known as a convenience store to Americans — where I had harmlessly asked to purchase a bottle of milk and some Fruit Roll-Ups from the counter. The man sounded like my mortal enemy from kindergarten, plus some swearing.
Speak English properly?
I had been in this country for four years. I had painstakingly traced every alphabet letter over and over until I cried, and I had stayed up in the library for hours perusing every English book I could find. I had taken on dealing with Auckland’s tax department instead of my mother because of my greater experience in the language, and you’re telling me I can’t speak English properly?
When I moved back to Beijing years later, I was still getting this. I didn’t make the forensics team in 10th and 11th grade because I had an accent which was “wonderful, oh yes it is, but we want someone whose English doesn’t have so many … bumps.” My in-class presentations still warranted raised eyebrows from my classmates, all because I couldn’t quite get the word “synecdoche” out without stuttering. I became fearful of speaking in English. What was the point of speaking when my accent stood out like thorns, unintentionally prickling all of my conversations?
It is time to do away with the notion that there is a correct way to speak English.
We may not know that more than 750 million people in the world speak English as a second language, but our ears can certainly pick out when someone speaks the language with a Japanese tinge or a hint of a Mexican accent. We have seen and laughed at the millions of videos on YouTube imitating 20-something different English accents, and we have tried to mimic them. Attempting accents is funny to native English speakers because to them, accents are incongruent to a supposedly “Western” language.
English, however, is naturally transient like any other language. English is believed to have formed when ancient Western Germanic tribes lived in places such as Ireland, France and the Netherlands. Throughout the ages, English has taken on many different forms. From Old English, closely related to the Old Saxon dialect, to Modern English, English constantly evolves and adapts to different areas. Today, what the British call standard, Oxford English is only spoken by 15 percent of the British population, and each state in the United States has a slightly different accented English. Countries such as Singapore, Jamaica and Barbados have all made English one of their official languages, and it seems the globalization of the language will only continue.
So if English isn’t a standardized language to begin with, why are we trying to stabilize it now?
I consider accents in the English language to be something entirely natural and individualized, like the color of your eyes or the way you walk. There is no universal way to speak English, so stop trying to force your way onto ours.
To the other non-native English speakers out there: If you think your English is somehow imperfect because of an accent, stop trying so hard to get it right. Invest in time to really hear yourself talk, and then own your accent. Not only should you be able to speak without shame, but you should be lauded. Your accent is a mark left behind from arduously learning an entirely new language. How many out there have the courage not only to learn a language but to put themselves out there and converse with native speakers?
So be brave, and be proud. Own that particular lilt that you have, and strut around with it. Sound like you’re from London, Abu Dhabi, Seoul or Jakarta.
Sound like you’re fresh off the boat.
Jessie Qian writes the Thursday blog on issues of internationalism. You can contact her at [email protected].