From English…to English

So quite clearly, I know English (I hope).

I can speak fluent English, and I can write in fluent English (not sure how that works, but you get the idea).  Yet, the one thing that makes me apprehensive about relocating to the United States for college is precisely the fact that I know English…except it’s not the same type of English.

I think the simplest way of putting this is that I’m concerned about the transition from British English to American English: from the day I could use a pencil without breaking the lead, I was taught to say ‘jam’ instead of ‘jelly’…among other things.  The storybooks I read always said that Tim’s favourite colour is blue, Jenny is entering the lift, and Mark asked to go to the toilet.  Likewise, since I went to a school where Singaporean or (sometimes anti-American) British teachers taught exclusively in British English, in which the latter often claimed, “the way Americans spell thing is just wrong.”  Being the reticent and submissive girl I was back then, I didn’t say a single word in retaliation (people expected me to because I’m an American citizen).  I didn’t, and never did, agree that either American or British English is right or wrong; it’s just how I was taught.

Earlier today, I had a discussion with Mom about whether or not I would told to “change” my English from British to American; she replied, “I’m pretty sure they will, since you’ll be in America after all.”  To be fair, I don’t speak or write purely in British English, because I do say “elevator” instead of “lift” about 70% of the time.  But then again, I’m probably still going to be asked to go away from what I’ve learnt growing up and accept a new reality.

It’s not necessarily because I don’t want to change, but I’m concerned about how far I can actually be “Americanised” in terms of writing and speaking.  Based on experience, I honestly don’t think I can be permanently taught, trained or changed in terms of virtually anything linguistic when it comes to something that I’m familiar with.  This is the case for both English and Putonghua.

Let me elaborate on this: when I speak Mandarin Chinese in class, I am noted for my distinctly Taiwanese accent.  My teacher (who has taught me, and therefore complained to me, for the past four years) remarks that I don’t “bite on” certain enunciations, if I may put it that way.  For instance, I don’t accent on the “letter” that needs to be emphasised (we don’t speak in syllables), and I can sometimes go too “high” or “low” on certain words (whatever that means; I’m merely translating from what she says…).  In other words, she’s always encouraging me to speak in a less-Taiwanese accent without actually steering towards something like an actual Peking Chinese accent (if you’re Chinese, there is a rather subtle difference amongst the various Chinese accents across its provinces).  Of course, I tried to change my accent to “fit” what is required of me; yet, when I’m at home, I go straight back to how I usually speak Chinese.  It’s almost as if my teacher’s comments have fallen on semi-deaf ears.

As for English…let me put it this way.  I go to a predominantly Singaporean school, where a “dialect” or “accent” known as Singlish prevails.  As mentioned sometime in the past, I’ve been here since kindergarten, in which I’ve seen countless Singapore teachers and classmates come and go.  Every year, teachers are likely to speak in that strong Singaporean accent that many non-Singaporeans I’ve met find hilarious.  It was an accent that I’ve adapted quickly, and that I can switch to and from my normal standard American accent almost completely by will or command.  Note that I don’t actually speak in Singlish unless the situation “requires” me to, such as when I’m with a Singaporean person.  Some have said that my accent is so authentic that they aren’t sure if I’m mocking them or not (I don’t; it just happens for some reason).  Yet, when I’m with a non-Singaporean person, I speak in my normal American accent that many other classmates and teachers have found somewhat irritating (I reiterate and re-emphasise the anti-American people I’ve met).

Now that we’ve established all of that, I should just reiterate the fact that I really don’t think I can actually change the way I speak or write from British to American English, especially because it’s something I’ve been somewhat programmed to do for the past fourteen years.  Yet, can colleges really change the way I write or speak?  I may be wrong, but I feel like for the most part, the only differences between British and American English is the use of certain terminology such as “lorry” or “truck”, or the differences in spelling such as “realise” and “realize.”  Perhaps slang and phrases is a different story, but I’m not sure how frequently that would be used in the academic realm; socially, I will have to habituate to these things, I suppose.

Yet, how far, or for how long, can I actually change?

Thanks for stopping by.  Don’t be a stranger.  That’s a wrap.


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2 thoughts on “From English…to English

  1. Hmmm. I think learning to change to American English while living in America isn’t quite like learning to speak Chinese a particular way while living in Hong Kong. In America, most of the people you’ll be around will speak American, whereas in Hong Kong… you’re not the only person I’ve heard speak Mandarin in a very Taiwanese way (I had a Taiwanese accent before, despite nobody in my family ever having been to Taiwan).

    Even if you did continue to speak the way you do, is it going to be an issue, though? The cultural diversity that comes from having many different people from different walks of life and different cultures can be really valuable. Sometimes conformity isn’t the answer.

    1. I think I’m more concerned about my homework assignments, but then again maybe it’s due to the almost-OCD nature I was taught at school as a kid: I got detention once for writing 7 with a cross in third grade; a Chinese teacher got angry when a classmate wrote in Traditional Chinese after he got transferred from a local school; a certain ICT teacher complains when a website or textbook writes in American English. I guess it’s the small things that really worry me when it comes to submitting my senior thesis, for example. As an outlier right now, I don’t know how tolerable it may be.

      Too bad this wasn’t a question addressed at Open House!

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