Student blog: have an accent while speaking English? There’s no need to be afraid.
An earlier version of this article was originally published on Mothership.sg.
Coming from Singapore, I had to do my two years National Service before going to university. When it came to deciding where to go for university, studying in Australia was an enticing prospect.
It was going to be a challenge leaving my loved ones in Singapore in pursuit of academic studies, but I relished one of the challenges of studying in Australia - I would have to trade away the "so how ah" and "what you want (to) order" for the Australian versions, "what do you reckon" and "how's it going mate, what can I get you today".
Australians are very encouraging, even when you have an accent
I realised this one night during my first year while rehearsing for a presentation. I was about to present to a class which was half-filled with Australians; it was possible they would not be able to understand my (relatively foreign) accent.
Despite my concerns, the presentation went well and I was heartened to receive positive feedback for it. This assuaged some of my concerns that the way I spoke would be a problem in a foreign country.
After that, I decided to try to improve my public speaking skills, especially for an Australian audience. I attended a presentation skills workshop for international students and learned that the university teaching staff actually find foreign accents fascinating. A senior faculty member said that a foreign accent does not make an international student less understandable and will not hamper their presentation grade.
During class, I was heartened to hear that some of my Australian classmates were assuring other international students that their English is good. They even praised us for knowing more than one language!
Catching up on some Aussie lingo can be very helpful
That being said, I understand that it might be scary to speak to Australians or to be around them when they sound so different from you. However, do not be afraid or discouraged from communicating with them. There are many ways to make locals understand you better.
I have tried to speak slower, pronounce my words more clearly and slip some Australian slang terms into my daily conversations. Interestingly enough, recent research conducted by Australian National University shows non-English speaking migrants pick up the local dialect quicker than their English-speaking counterparts.
For example, "yeah"s become less of a flat "yah" into a more rounded "ye-ah" or "ye-air". I also learned to include some Australian figures of speech like "how's it going" (it is, after all, good to check in with people and ask them about themselves). I learned it from service staff like café baristas as they tend to greet customers and ask them how they are before taking their order.
These minor tweaks might help you communicate better with the locals in the long term.
Embrace your accent and native slang – you might influence others!
However, I am not saying that you have to sound so different or get rid of your natural accent every time you talk with an Australian. There may be times where you have to speak slower or rephrase if they did not catch your words the first time.
There are plenty of opportunities to still use your natural accent.
There is a tendency for international students to stick together. Most of my friends are from Singapore too or are fellow international students. More often than not, people are curious about your accent and native slang.
There is even the chance that you could influence other people with your own idiosyncrasies.
I saw this happen with one of my friends, a Japanese guy who was taught by native English speakers (such as teachers from Canada and Great Britain) and went to the US on home-stay programs when he was younger. To my great amusement, he began subconsciously picking up Singaporean English terms like, "lah", "aiyo"and "walao eh" in regular speech.
He also remarked once, "I've been using a lot of lahs around you guys lately. I hope I don't accidentally use it among my other (non-Singaporean) friends."
Having studied here for more than a year, it surprises me how many different cultures there are in Brisbane. Australians are used to being around people who look and sound different from them. There is a lot of understanding and respect between Australians and international students.
There is not much need to change the way you speak to be understood. If there needs to be a change, it is generally just to fit the social situation and be understood by the other party.