Caught Up in Code-Switching

Patrick Tan, General Counsel at JIA Asia Asset Management talks about the merits of code-switching
Published: 19 September 2023

“I’ll have the fried kway teow please,” I said as slowly as I could manage, in the stifling tropical heat of the hawker centre, eager to have my first taste of Singapore’s trademark cuisine.

“What you want ah?” came the sharp, and to my unattuned ears, completely indecipherable reply.

This was not going well.

As the line started to build up steadily behind me, I assumed that simply by speaking louder, I could make myself better understood.

“Fried kwaaay teow,” emphasising the “a” sound in what would prove to be a futile attempt to enunciate what was otherwise unpronounceable to me.

The matronly proprietor of the fried noodle shop, growing increasingly irate, shot me back a quizzical look.

“Eh, you want popiah (a Singaporean radish-filled wrap dish) go over there, you can see I have a lot of customers here or not?”

My lunch companion, by now unable to stifle her laughter at my inability to order the iconic dish, decided to step in, “Aunty, two char kway teow, no chilli, eat here.”

“Ah, why your friend don’t say? He ang moh or what? But he don’t look ang moh leh.”

Before I could express my indignation, my lunch companion dragged me aside as others in line for the rice noodle-based delicacy shot me evil glances for holding it up.

“What was that all about?” I protested.

“Aiyah, nothing lah. Your accent lah. The poor lady can’t understand a word you’re saying.”

“What accent? My accent is not that bad.”

“Are you kidding? I’d say the number of locals who can understand you are in the minority.”

“But I spoke English and I was told that’s the lingua franca of Singapore.”

“It’s not what you say that’s a problem, it’s how you say it. It’s your accent.”

Having just arrived in Singapore after most of a life spent growing up in Daytona Beach, Florida, I was determined to assimilate in a way I never quite had been able to in America.

After all, growing up as one of only two Asian kids in a small town on Florida’s Atlantic coast, I was for the first time in my life, surrounded by people who looked like me, surely, I would want to sound like them too.

Assimilation is in many ways a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, new emigres are often eager to adapt to the ways of their adoptive countries, but on the other hand, there’s a part of each and every one of us that clings to our identities, a concept that’s becoming increasingly plastic given greater global mobility.

Growing up as an Asian kid in a predominantly white town, I remember ladies coming up to me in the local Ponderosa and asking to touch my hair because it was so shiny and black.

Naturally, I took no offense to it at the time, there were certainly benefits to being the local Asian curiosity (such as an extra-large scoop of vanilla at the ice cream parlour).

Nor would I take offense when kindly strangers told my mother, “Your son speaks such good English!” as if I was some freak of nature.

I would always manage a, “You’re not too bad yourself lady,” before my mother would embarrassingly pull me away.

And perhaps more significantly, when I opened my mouth to speak, I sounded like everyone else in Daytona Beach.

Given how I had grown up in Daytona Beach instead of being a transplant like my parents were, my thick southern accent was a function of prolonged exposure to other Floridians, for whom any other accent would have been inscrutable.

Yet it was this very ability to assimilate in America that would prove to be an Achilles heel on my return to Asia—no one could really understand me (not that I could fully understand them either).

Undeterred, I tried my best to shake off my southern drawl and pepper my speech with suitable local colloquialisms, when a German friend one day remarked to me, “You’re pretty good at code-switching!”

“Code-switching? What’s that?”

As it turns out, code-switching is something many of us do, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

Whether it’s an attempt to sound more Singaporean so I could sample local dishes with minimal fuss, or a Singaporean trying to sound more anglicised, outside of America and other countries where English is the native tongue, most people code-switch.

Since the concept of codeswitching was brought to my attention all those years ago, I’ve grown more conscious of it and noted those who tend not to at all.

Americans would never attempt to change their accents, whereas I have noted countless Singaporeans and others from Asia try to sound more “American” or “British” when speaking with their white friends as if they wouldn’t be able to understand them otherwise.

And while it may be true the Singaporean accent can be impenetrable at times, does codeswitching to sound more American or British actually take away from the Singaporean identity?

Surely there aren’t a lot of Americans trying to sound like Singaporean people speaking English (although there are far more American children trying to sound Australian thanks to the hit animated series Bluey).

Recently there was a small furore when American mothers, concerned their children were starting to sound like the Australian-accented Bluey from the animated series, suggested an Americanised version of the cartoon be created, as if there was something objectionable about the Australian accent.

The concern as it turns out, wasn’t so much that kids would behave like Australians, Bluey is a very wholesome cartoon, but rather they would sound more like Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter.

This is why it may not be a bad idea to introduce the concept of code-switching.

To be fair, actors do it all the time—whether to play a character from a different country or even from a different era, code-switching is to acting what butter is to bread.

With the progress of time, I’ve come to accept the necessity of code-switching.

When I return to America, I return to sounding like an American, and while I remain in Singapore, I try my darnedest to sound Singaporean, neither of which I feel diminishes either my Americanness or my Singaporean-ness.

We live in a globalised world where accents are a feature, not a bug.

An accent, whether organic or adopted, can help assimilation for the speaker and also the listener.

And while an adopted accent can be jarring on the ears of a native speaker at times, the recipient should appreciate the effort being made at code-switching.

In a world where we increasingly choose the people, places, culture and histories we most identify with, surely it is within our grasp to also select the accents we most associate with as well?

So, here’s to code-switching for those who can do it. And for those who haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it.

Just don’t forget to switch back from time to time y’all.

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