“You actually say ‘maths’ instead of ‘math?’”
“So … I hope you don’t mind if I ask you a personal
question: Did you live in the U.K. earlier? No? Australia? No? Then where does
the British accent come from?”
Classmates, professors and strangers alike have
been asking me similar questions. Since this phenomenon has continued for
years, I would readily give out the frequently repeated set of responses: That
one of the ways I learned English as a Chinese schoolgirl was by watching films
like Harry Potter and Pride and Prejudice and by reading Shakespearean
“As a child,” I would tell them, “I would watch
those films over and over, even after I could memorise most of the lines. I
simply enjoyed doing it.” I do not tend to mention how I adore the elegance and
clarity of the sounds, fearing to offend my American audience. I hope that you
do not find this offensive in any way as you are reading this. Actually, I am
increasingly finding the American accent equally beautiful.
However, as time elapsed, I saw the necessity of
backfiring a question at the enquirers: “But I have been Americanizing my
accent. Am I failing it?” Obviously. Gazing at me with a mixed feeling
of pity and disbelief, my new acquaintances would gently nod. They could still
readily detect the Britishness under a thin coat of a faked American accent at
the mere utterance of two or three words.
Frankly, I have been quite puzzled at my own
attempt to Americanize my accent. And my spelling. I am used to adamantly
spelling “memorize” as “memorise” and ignoring my laptop’s dotted red or blue
lines as it loyally auto-checks my spelling, despite my repeated efforts to
change my settings to ‘British.’
As first-year students at the 5Cs, we all try to
blend into our new academic and social environments. The task is more challenging
for us international students who may experience cultural shocks no matter how
Americanized our lives have been prior to our arrival in the United States.
Having attended an international high school in Beijing where the American accent
was dominant, I felt that my accent had always stood out whenever I opened my
mouth to speak in class and during conversations with my friends.
awareness that people felt that I am different triggered a sense of discomfort
at times. The realisation propelled me to alter my British accent by
Americanizing it. Americanizing my accent, I felt, would help me stand out less
in academic and social settings. Americanizing my accent is my attempt to blend
in with the general American atmosphere.
As a self-identified Anglophile, I have considered
the British accent as an integral aspect that has defined me ever since
I started learning English as a second language in elementary school.
From modern business practices, we see how brands
evolve and develop, sometimes achieving greater success and wider
consumer bases or brand loyalty. Brand
images may change due to social, cultural, political, economic, technological
or environmental factors. This analogy from the intangible field of business
and management seems to parallel my personal situation to a great extent.
British accent became part of my personal brand image as I started gaining
fluency in the language. As I realized social and psychological factors that propelled
me to grow and evolve, I tried adding another accent, the standard American
accent, to my existing language base but have not necessarily succeeded.
Admittedly, I despise my current accent: a peculiar
blend of American and British accents that would automatically raise a few more
eyebrows than my more British accent did in the past. It is truly frustrating
that I can hardly transition back to my former accent nor smoothly acquire a
perfectly American accent. I have, though, learned a lesson that my challenge to
myself to switch to a different accent has interestingly presented a new challenge that is even more demanding. Looking
forward, I hope to step out of this ambivalence.
I aim to be able to flexibly alternate between a more British accent and a more American accent depending on my
audience. At the very least, I hope to either reclaim my original accent or to
fully Americanize it, which should be made possible by my full immersion in
the environment here.
April Xiaoyi Xu
PO ’18 intends to major in international relations. She regularly contributes to
The Huffington Post and
The South China Morning Post and is part of TSL’s copy editing department.