Written by Sumithri Venketasubramanian
Graphic by Hengjia Liu
This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
Your phone vibrates. It’s your best friend, and they’ve tagged you in a meme on Facebook. It makes you chuckle. You type, “Lmaooooo love that for you, I stan”. Another notification comes through: your request for an extension on your essay due tomorrow has been accepted. You reply to your tutor, “Thank you so much for your understanding. Kind regards.” Is either one of these exchanges any less authentic than the other? Was one your true self and the other a front? And if so, who are we?
Swapping the tone of one of those online interactions with the other would likely make your response seem out of place. Whether consciously or not, we are constantly negotiating the presentation of ourselves that we intend to put forward in each interaction we have. The factors at play often depend on the context and the relationship we have with the people we’re interacting with. (Who knows, maybe some tutors may be totally down with, “You da GOAT.”)
But rather than seeing one way of speaking as being “authentic” and all others “fake”, we are multidimensional beings, with all of these legitimate characters we put forward in different aspects of our lives. Our identities are not set in stone, but instead are dynamic – whether between our e-mail app and TikTok, or from work to home.
“… the situation here’s pretty scary. The cases are going up and there still seem to be people not taking things seriously. And I – hold on, someone’s at the door. Come in! Ya? … No lah, Amma, I ’ready told you earlier what. Must log in to Google first then can join the Zoom call. Aiyah. Ok ok, I come and help you. Five minutes! … Sorry about that, my mum’s asking for my help with something.”
“Whoa, your accent changes so much when you talk to your family!”
Code-switching is the linguistic phenomenon when one’s communication style changes during an interaction with different parties. Bilingual kids (including those who speak non-standard dialects of English) probably know the story of the “home accent” (the one we use with our parents, possibly mixed with words or grammar from our mother tongue), and their publicly presenting “normal accent”. Having friends over at our parents’ house may suddenly make us conscious of what we’re always doing – I know I’ve had a scramble trying to figure out whether I want to pronounce things one way or the other.
She opens the car boot, jerking her arm up to get the suitcase in. Opens the door, climbs into the passenger seat. “The flight was so crowded. The food was alright, and I got some sleep. My neck hurts now, though.” She turns around and blows a kiss to her brother in the back seat.
“Eh you know, every time you come back you always sound so Australian, especially the first few days. It’s quite annoying. Talk normally, lah.”
The impressions people form of us from the way we speak are underpinned by assumptions about our ethnicity, class, and education. In Singapore, where I’m from, our government launched the “Speak Good English” campaign two decades ago, discouraging the use of Singlish, our multicultural creole that borrows from languages such as English, Malay, Hokkien, Mandarin, Teochew, Tamil, and Cantonese. Singlish is an ever-changing vernacular, spoken widely in informal interactions, and is one of the most beautiful and fascinating results of Singapore’s ethnic diversity. Although English is the medium of education all through school and is taught as a standalone subject from primary through secondary school, many students are much more likely to speak a non-English language or Singlish with their family and friends.
Speaking good (standard) English is a marker of good education – this is, of course, a legacy of British colonisation in Singapore, where English-medium formal education was a sign of the elite. As the campaign rationale goes, it allows to be better understood when interacting with non-Singaporean peers overseas, and for more successful business communication. The implication is that “good” English leads to greater success, and hence improves one’s standing in society as a whole. Nowadays, although the Speak Good English campaign is still ongoing, the importance of Singlish to our community and identity has been acknowledged, and even features quite prominently in government campaigns. Instead, we are encouraged to be able to switch between English and Singlish, depending on the context.
“Wait, what? You’re not from Australia?! I never would have guessed, you sound like you’ve lived here for years!”
“Yeah, I thought it would be fun to learn the Aussie accent when I was fifteen. My family had gone to Australia and New Zealand for a trip the December before, and I was so intrigued by the accents that I learnt them.”
A few years ago, I hosted a campus radio show about being unabashedly proud people of colour – but in the Australian accent I taught myself as a schoolkid. It was a choice I made, coming here, to fit in as far as possible. It was fun, to feel like I was playing a character and exploring some of the slang and mannerisms that Australians have. But it was also a choice that probably afforded me some opportunities that I may not have had if I sounded more “foreign”. The choices we make about language may not be entirely free, but rather, influenced by social attitudes and norms.
While code-switching may be fun for some, it is an unfortunate necessity for others. When certain dialects, such as Aboriginal English, are dismissed as being informal “slang” or a “lazy” way of speaking, those stereotypes further stigmatise Aboriginal people and jeopardise the opportunities and influence the experiences that they have throughout life. Migrants with non-English backgrounds may also feel the need to speak fluent English and fit in, in order to attain professional success and social status.
Our relationship with language and identity is one shaped by the communities we are in – whether we learn to speak a certain way, or to avoid speaking another. The more open society is to diversity of people, the more welcoming a space it becomes for the seemingly infinite languages and vernaculars that exist in the world. It may seem intimidating to be confronted by vastly different vernaculars than our own, but as we destigmatise certain communication styles, we open up ourselves to understanding other dialects and, in turn, cultures. Our societal identities change over time, and interaction across cultures becomes less about assimilation and more about mutual learning. We are challenged in our notions of identity, what it means to be Australian, Singaporean, or “educated”, and learn of knowledge and culture previously unfamiliar. A world where we can speak however we feel comfortable, with no consequences on the outcomes of our lives. And that, I stan.