Guest Post: To Talk Like Them

[Footnotes is pleased to welcome the following guest post by Tian An Wong, a professor of Mathematics with an affinity for social theory. This post was originally published on the ethnographic methods blog]

‘This is America, speak English.’ You can probably feel the sting of these words if you live in the US and speak a language other than English. In fact, you might even feel it too if you speak only English, but not the right kind of English. You are other.

As we know, there are many ‘Englishes,’ and not all of them are equal. British English, first of all, is the most well-regarded of English accents in the US, and which the movie Love Actually pokes fun at. Canadian English is seen as being on a somewhat equal footing, like a friendly neighbor, while accents like those from Brooklyn or Boston are viewed with a kind of nostalgia; they represent the working class and a fading era. Then there’s Spanish English, which is looked down upon as dialects or pidgins, and forms the stuff of comedy like the Adam Sandler movie Spanglish; alongside other Englishes like Konglish (Korean English) and Hinglish (Hindi English). This hierarchy is intuitively obvious to most people, and as such, embedded in the way we speak English is the history of the colonialism and imperialism writ large.

I grew up in Malaysia, so my brand of English is known as Manglish. It is most known for being peppered with ‘lah’s at the end of sentences. This reflects the richness of our cultural mixing, with Malay, Chinese, and Tamil cultures: the use of ‘lah’ can be traced back to any of these three linguistic sources, each in their own right.

Taking part in the massive brain drain, or outflow of skilled persons from Malaysia, I had left my home country over a decade ago for study, beginning at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York called Vassar, and only returning for short visits to family. In recent years, I’ve also lived and worked in Germany and India, where English also operates, but in vastly different ways.

This time around being back in Malaysia, I met a lot of so-called US returnees. People who had studied or are studying in the US and are now back, whether to visit or for good. Some of were my parents’ friends who had studied in the US a long time ago, and now had children who were doing the same, and were back on holiday. Basically, like me. The strangest thing, was their range of accents. Each one was a different hybrid of Manglish and what I started calling ‘Vassar English’, which frankly, signifies a certain northeast USA variety of whiteness. (Let’s be real: the accent that we often think of when we say ‘American English’ is a marker of whiteness, popularised by Hollywood, which is largely white.) I realised, to my dismay—and my college friends affirmed this to me later on—that I, too, talk like this.

But I code switch. I speak an approximation of Vassar English to my US friends and also anyone who’s not Malaysian, and if I’m honest with myself, to myself. That is what troubles me. To code switch into another speech pattern is to conform to a certain way of speaking that makes communication easier, and lots of people do this, even going from a Southern accent to a Northeast accent. But to have Vassar English be the accent I use when speaking with someone not from the US, to have it be a kind of a ‘default’ voice, betrays something much deeper.

I talk to myself like I am from the US. I think and read in this voice too.

So Manglish is no longer my natural state. Part of this has to be, because one half of me now—my spouse—is from the US, and sounds ‘white’, as it were. I conducted a  Skype interview the other day with someone from the US in this voice. I laid it on thick. I performed this whiteness, and if you ask me, I performed it well.

This all begs to be theorised, for nativist rant pieces to be written about it. But at the same time it is so raw, so personal. It gets tied up in identity: how do we see ourselves and how do we see others depending on the way we sound. If you don’t speak Manglish when you speak English to a Malaysian, can you be Malaysian? Is this just everyday cultural assimilation, played out in my own vocal chords? There is a banality to this, in that for such a linguistic shift to occur, one does not need to go so far as to be rejecting one’s home culture, the way holocaust survivors refuse to speak German anymore, even if it were their mother tongue. I just have to want to fit in at school, or at work.

The simple answer is that we are complex, that culture is complicated, heterogeneous and fluid. But there’s much more to it: the power dynamics, the supposed privilege of having studied or worked in the US, the need to conform to speech patterns in the British empire and her white children (but not her colored children). That last one especially. Living in India afterwards, I don’t find myself picking up so much of an Indian English accent, much less attempting to talk like an Indian. (Does this count as ‘going native‘?) In fact, because of the association of Indian English accents with stand-up comedy (think Russell Peters) and caricatures on TV (think Apu in the Simpsons), it seems almost insulting at times to try to imitate the accent as a means of conforming. Indeed, an easy way to get laughs in comedy is to ‘do an accent’.

More crucially, while I have learned to use phrases that work only in Indian English so as to be better understood by my listener, like ‘the food was very less’, in no way has it become embedded in my own personal speech pattern. That is, I don’t talk like that when I’m not talking to an Indian. It seems like what passes as the gold standard, the Englishes to aspire to, are those such as British English, US English, and maybe also Canadian or Australian English. Of course, to speak of things like ‘British English’ already assumes too much about what English in Britain is, and how English Britain really is.

In freshman year of college, I started to notice my speech pattern conforming to ‘Vassar English’. This bothered, or at least intrigued me enough to make a cold call to a professor in linguistics in the Anthropology department; I simply showed up at his office and asked what was going on with me. That was our first and last meeting. He gave me the words to describe it: speech accommodation. That was probably the right answer, but there’s more to it, isn’t there? There’s other words like assimilation, conformity, stop asking me to repeat myself, or stop laughing at the way I said that.

In a way, it’s Ashis Nandy’s intimate enemy all over again [1]. We can see the power relation working through a kind of internal oppression. Or is it suppression? Because not only do languages contains worlds, but so do speech patterns. The way I say things tells a story of where and who I’ve been, and in completely code-switching to Vassar English, I erase myself. I sound white, or at least I can pretend I do until someone asks where I’m from. Or until I slip up and pronounce certain words with the wrong intonation or emphasis.

But back to power. Why don’t I conform to Indian English or German English, say, where I have lived in after my years in the US? Here’s a piece of the puzzle: because I’m not being asked to conform in the same way. In empires like the US and England, we’re asked—or ordered—to speak English because of the country we are in. You’re in America now, speak English. It drips of nationalist, settler-colonial arrogance. Of course, you’ll get this rhetoric just the same if you were, say, a Syrian refugee living in Germany. You get othered.

No one is holding me at gunpoint—though sadly this seems like a more and more plausible scenario these days—demanding that I speak ‘proper’ English. Rather, the many microagressions and the internalized oppression work to extract a conformity to the imperial standard. The migrant self is sacrificed at the altar of whiteness—erased, replaced with a pale imitation of the white man. And erasure is a feature of the colonial project, new and old: accepted history is told by and about those in power. Those who immigrate to the US after the pilgrims inherit the same amnesia about the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of black folks, and the continuing xenophobia towards Arabs, Asians, and anyone south of the border. Just as the pilgrims arrived on terra nullius, so did later immigrants receive a US history that starts with Columbus as they swore allegiance to the flag. You are in America now, speak English.

And then, just to remind you that people of color are perpetual foreigners in the US, I still get asked by people in the US, Why is your English so good? I have come to learn that what they mean by it is: You are very good at talking like me. How did you do it? The answer, as we now know, is because I am scorned, I am laughed at, I don’t get a job when I don’t talk like you. I don’t like to be othered; I conform. Sure, we can call it speech accommodation, which is a nice and neutral textbook term, but really it is the intimate enemy at work within, whereby I discipline myself in the hopes of being accepted as a loyal subject of the empire.

Therein lies the folly of asking for authentic Manglish, because in fact, there so clearly isn’t one. In Malaysia, everyone’s English is other to someone else. Malays and Chinese and Indians speak an English accented with tones and phrases of their other tongues. In the same way, to ask for a monolithical US English is an exercise in blind nationalism, for it means to constitute the US imaginary by a mere handful of allowed accents. But of course, this happens all the time.

Then there’s people like my friends Sarah and Sheng who retain their Malaysian accents so well. They came back to Malaysia right after college. There’s something about that which I admire: the US did not hold enough of a fascination for them to want to stay. They weren’t so impressed with the American Dream. I, not so much. I might deny it, but I’m quite sure that I harbour an inferiority complex about not being (or not trying to be) successful in the West. I don’t know how I maintain it, with my postcoloniality and also the way civil life is unraveling there. Is it a kind of a Stockholm syndrome that makes one want to please one’s oppressor? Comparing myself with them, it becomes clear that this psychological oppression is imposed upon myself through a desire to assimilate, to be like them, to talk like them. My own tongue betrays the extent to which the US holds power over me.

Maybe there’s something to be said about this sort of a love-hate relationship: Do I hate the West because I care about it, or because I aspire to it, or because I think capitalists have achieved better than the Marxists. (Do I really?) Or consider another friend of mine, Stanton, whom I met in Shanghai last month en route to Malaysia. He seemed to be doing well there, these past four years. He too studied and worked in the US for many years, then later decided to move back to Shanghai, and doesn’t think much of the US as a place to live. Maybe the best way to provincialize Europe [2] is to not talk about it. But I guess that’s what Asia as Method [3] already proposed. Theorize Asia through Asia; no need for the dead white guys. The only thing, is that if you don’t talk about Europe, you risk Europe not talking about you, and you have to be okay with that. It’s not a big price to pay, if you consider the fact that the whole point is to actually not care about them at all.

But—and here’s the rub—we have to care. Chakrabarty already points this out. For the workings of the empire pervade our present and future lives whether we like it or not, and we cannot be blind to them. We cannot let it have its way, and be satisfied with the US (and British) empire collapsing in on itself as one might hope it will in this political and ecological climate. You see, even if the West crumbles in our time, another master will move in to fill the void. That is why resistance is the only way. Revolution works sometimes, but a revolution is a singular event more than anything else, it does not sustain itself. But resistance, on the other hand, is a methodology, a way of life, that continues to find allies and make friends in solidarity.

I must decolonise myself, disabusing myself of all the internalised oppression and suppression, and find new worlds in different tongues.


Works cited

[1] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism

[2] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference

[3] Kuan-Hsing Chen, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization

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