Codeswitching

The timbre of my voice, whether I string my words together or chop them up with little breaks in between, the speed of which I convey something, and if the sentences come out in a single language or multiple ones – it all depends on who is on the receiving end of what I’m going to say.

An “accent” when speaking draws a lot of ire from Singaporeans, especially if their returning friend or family member has only been away for several months. For me, the company I am keeping would determine the voice I use at that current moment, very much like how I dress appropriately for different occasions. Both of these voices that I have are authentic and are the “real me”. I flip between these two voices to make the people I am speaking to feel comfortable, to avoid confusion, and to convey certain things that might be impossible otherwise.

I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain this split, until I found out about code-switching from a friend who was learning about linguistics. It is, at its most basic, the way people mix languages and speech patterns in conversation. If you’d like to find out more, NPR hosts a blog called Code Switch, run by journalists interested in the intersections of race, culture and ethnicity. This is a good place to begin – Gene Demby shows that everyone, from the President of the United States Barack Obama to pop star who can do no wrong Beyoncé, uses some form of code-switching.

When less socially conscious Americans congratulate me on my “good English”, and for not retaining a Singaporean accent, they do not know of my painful first few months living in the United States, where I was constantly aware of my enunciation and how my voice might sound to others. This self-monitoring of my emphasis, inflection, intonation and syntax was so taxing on me, it was any wonder that I could ever bring myself to speak. When I hear this intended compliment, all I can hear is them giving me a pass, that despite where I had come from, I had managed to accomplish the very difficult task of sounding like them.

Growing up in Singapore meant getting an English language education, but actually using a strange and lovely mishmash of heavily mangled English, Mandarin Chinese, Hokkien dialect, and Malay in everyday conversation. Our government runs campaigns imploring us to stop using Singlish, but it is an inside joke I share with a couple million people and it’s just too much ingrained in how we act around each other, and too important to give up for the mere appearance of being couth. Our Creole language is one you have to be born into to fully appreciate – those seemingly random sounds that we tack on at the end of hurried staccato sentences have a myriad of uses, from softening a brusque tone to denoting sarcasm. People of different races swear in the most vulgar of Hokkien phrases. We throw in a casual “lah” at the end of an apology to make us sound that much more sincere.

This Singaporean voice occasionally makes sudden appearances on American soil, but it never feels right. This voice is safe on my island city, it’s where it truly belongs, where there are people who can understand.

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