We should be unapologetic about accents.
“Your dad has such a hilarious accent!” Bianca chuckled. I stared at her with an eyebrow slightly raised. “ — But like adorable-hilarious,” she corrected herself.
“That’s only because he’s speaking English,” I said.
English is not my dad’s first language.
In fact, my dad was the first person who ever got a degree in his family. For all the generations before him, education wasn’t even an option. The priorities ran, food — well, mostly food. Up until he was twelve, my dad lived in a pretty rural village. They had open-roof toilets and my aunt once told us that rats would occasionally run across the floors where they slept. It was not until the People’s Action Party took power did things start to turn around in the country.
My dad’s education was predominately taught in Mandarin. He only started learning the English language when he went to polytechnic, where he graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and went on to build a rather successful business recycling plastics. But even today, if he is ever required to write anything in English, he writes in ALL CAPS — because nobody ever taught him otherwise.
My dad once told me of how he tried to read the dictionary when he was younger because he didn’t know how else to improve his English. My grandma, who was at the time working in a fertilizer factory, had bought him that dictionary because she too, did not know how else to improve his English.
My dad, however, made learning the English a priority for my brother and myself. He always said, the truth is, whether we like it or not, the English language is universal. And we need it in order to express ourselves to the rest of the world — and that is very important.
Papa spent so much time and effort in ensuring that his children could read, write and speak English fluently so that we would not be seen as any different to the rest of the world. He thought that that would close a sort of gap in the playground between the natural English speaking kids and the learnt ones.
But it amazes me that even today people still make such a fuss about my dad’s accent. I wonder if they realise the effort this man has invested into learning an entire language that isn’t his own — just so that they could communicate with him.
Last year, a friend of mine came to visit us all the way from Germany. She had recently begun learning the Chinese language and tried to put it to use while she was living with us. Frankly, her intonation was a little all over the place. But in her entire two weeks with us, my dad never mentioned her “accent” — not even once. Because to him, Caroline didn’t have an accent. She was merely in working progress — learning a language that isn’t her own.