I have been called many things in my life, but “cute” certainly isn’t up there on the list of traits I’d associate myself with. Yet, this word seems to come up every single time I lapse into Singlish in front of my American friends. Perhaps it is because I’ve watched one too many American sitcoms that I know how to feign a pretty decent American accent. For some reason, almost every single American friend I’ve met at Yale seems to think that I’m from Orange County, or Brooklyn, or Jersey City. Which is why when they hear me lapse into Singlish, they start giggling: “Your accent is so different from anything I’ve heard before! It’s so … cute.”

Growing up, I have always been accustomed to what is commonly thought of as “Singlish”. A portmanteau of “Singapore” and “English”, Singlish is the unofficial national language of Singapore. Broadly speaking, it can be thought of as a sort of British English, with many loan words from the national languages of Singapore (Malay, Tamil, Chinese) and a few Chinese dialects. It is very different from American English in many ways. We are not good at pronouncing aspirated vowels, so “three” and “tree” are homophones. Especially when speaking fast, we often leave out dental end-consonants, so “haven’t” and “heaven” sound quite similar. 

I’ve often found that if I speak the way I do back home, people tell me that I sound quite “uneducated” and that I speak some form of bad English that needs to be corrected. Worse still, I’ve had professors stop class just to make me repeat something I said again and again, because the sort of English that I speak is so unintelligible to the American-trained ear. Singlish is, of course, difficult to understand for someone not attuned to the language’s nuanced textures. It technically also violates many rules of “good” pronunciation, which is why even in Singapore, you probably would not hear Singlish in its full form commonly spoken in professional settings.

This is why, upon coming to the U.S. for college, I made a decision to leave Singlish behind for four years. I watched all of the sitcoms that I could and made sure that I knew exactly when to roll my “r”s and aspirate my “t”s. Over the years, I’ve even picked up little phrases to use in polite conversations and in awkward social situations that I would never have thought to say in Singapore. Phrases like “how’s it going?” to a complete stranger, “you’re totally good” when someone apologizes for running into me, and “take it easy” have made their way into this little accent-slash-vocabulary I’ve constructed for myself. I still struggle with some words — most recently, “laboratory” — but I think I’ve mostly got the hang of it. Part of the decision was also grounded in the conviction that I did not want to “ruin” my Singlish by speaking some convoluted mix of Singlish and American English all the time. At the same time, I desired with all my heart to still be understood amongst my American friends and by my American professors, rather than bear the brunt of unintended humiliation in class and other social settings. This is especially important to me as an English major, because a lot of my learning happens in seminars where class participation is vital. Being unable to be understood is a huge stumbling block. 

However, a worrying problem that I repeatedly encounter is when people misconstrue this as “fake”. To them, when I call my parents on the phone and switch to Singlish, they start to think about how much I’ve been “pretending” around them all this while, speaking one way around them and then another way around someone else. They might not verbalize it, but under the surface there is always that lingering sense of judgment. Judgment for being “fake”, or even for “leaving behind” my cultural identity. In those situations, it is always deeply frustrating to me that those who police my accent probably have never had to be misunderstood again and again in a classroom or in a social setting.

Moreover, code-switching is not something unique to me. In fact, almost everyone does it in their lives, albeit unknowingly. We don’t talk the same way to our friends as to our professors. I’ve also met Yalies from places like Kentucky who significantly tone down aspects of their accent just to be better understood at Yale. Code-switching is a natural fact of life; it is just more obvious for people like myself. 

The truth of the matter is that accents are very much a function of privilege. I sometimes feel deeply envious of my British and Australian friends at Yale who don’t quite seem to have the same problem as I do. Perhaps it is the work of popular culture that has accustomed people to understanding them. Their accents are often thought of as intelligent, easy to understand and extremely charming. Not mine.

I am incredibly proud of Singlish, and wish that more people understood it. At the same time, I really do not want to have to repeat myself twenty times a day just to be understood by people. Nor do I wish to be called “cute” or “fake” or whatever it is that people call those not fortunate enough to have accents that are easily accepted. Wanting to code-switch is a personal decision that no one should ever have to feel ashamed for. 

SHI WEN YEO is a Junior in Morse College. Her Column, “God, Country and Yale”, runs every other Wednesday. Contact her at shiwen.yeo@yale.edu.

Shi Wen Yeo edits the Opinion Desk. She is a Senior in Morse College, majoring in English and Economics. Her column "Through the stained glass" runs every other Tuesday.