I speak English with three accents, and I’m not alone

TCKs change in and out of accents like shoes.
TCKs change in and out of accents like shoes.
Image: CC/Rich Niewiroski, CC/Rijk Soverheid
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“You’ve lost your Indian accent,” my parents told me during our latest FaceTime conversation. But could I really lose something I never fully had?

My partial Indian accent was one of several modes of pronunciation I’ve used over the years—part of the adaptive strategy I developed to deal with a unique upbringing. I grew up in Hong Kong, with parents who emigrated from India. I studied at a British school, and moved to the US to attend a university. My life has been, to say the least, culturally confused, and that confusion manifests most clearly in the way I speak.

Linguists define an accent as “a distinctive mode of pronunciation of a language, especially one associated with a particular nation or locality.” But what happens when you do not identify with a singular nation? For third culture kids (TCKs), those of us who have grown up outside of our parents’ home countries, straddling the divide between cultures, our accents reflect the multitudinous facets of our geographically influenced identities.

For many of us, locations are transient, but their effects on our lives are enduring. Our speech is mosaic, peppered with specks of our global experiences—a Singaporean “la,” a rolled Spanish R, enunciated British consonants. We piece together the Australian tones of our teachers, the Malay phrases uttered by our parents, with  the American slang we consume in media. The results are chaotic bricolages brought together in a unified utterance.

I grew up speaking in a (relatively) British accent, a pastiche of the British expatriate teachers at my primary school. Along with the accent came the English idioms—I lived in fear of being “told off” by a “cross” teacher for being “cheeky.” However, code switching was second nature for me, as I quickly slipped into an Indian accent at home, around my parents, and when visiting relatives in India.

At a young age, I learned that my relatives in India could not understand what I considered to be my default accent, so I developed a more “Indian” means of communication,  featuring a slower, more enunciated elocution that swapped out hard Ts for unaspirated “th” sounds.

After a summer holiday spent in our respective motherlands, my friends and I would be quick to laugh at one another for our lingering “home” accents, creating supposedly funny slips in pronunciation for a few days before switching back into our default school accents. Growing up in Hong Kong, this oral duality was par for the course, and widely understood by my friends, teachers, and everyone around me. Everyone had their own accent, but everyone had an accent, and that brought us together, allowing us to find sameness in our differences.

It was when I reached college in California that I became most aware of my distinct dialect. I moved from a community that welcomed transplants from every corner of the globe to one where most people had grown up within the same 30-mile radius. Not to be mistaken, my accent was an easy conversation topic with Americans who fawn over the foreign. “Top of the morning to ya,” one of my classmates would greet me when he saw me around campus, mistaking my British inflections for an Irish background. I received my fair share of Harry Potter jokes, and “how would you pronounce…?” games during my freshman year, but my accent quickly and easily adapted to the American mode of speaking.

Now, most people automatically assume from my accent that I was born and raised in the US, and are surprised to learn otherwise. While, in some ways, this is the ultimate sign of acceptance in a culture I entered only five years ago, it feels almost like a betrayal of my past. I feel ambivalently American—partly as though I have warmly dissolved into this melting pot of a nation, but partly too as though my identity has faded over time.

So many TCKs are chameleons, capable of adapting to any environment and subconsciously mimicking the accents and behaviours of that region. This unintentional imitation is even advantageous, serving as a social glue. It helps us to associate and empathise with the culture we are trying to blend in to.

We hopscotch between the accents and behaviours that define the cultural spaces we are trying to navigate, activating different parts of our identities with situational awareness, seeking to minimise the social distance between ourselves and the people with whom we are speaking. We incorporate the verbal customs and jargon of our adopted cultures, switching out “dodgy” for “sketchy,” and noting that “pants” could be either underwear or outerwear, depending on the location. Once in a while, we confuse our phraseology, leading to a chuckle at our expense, when we realise that asking to borrow a rubber won’t always get us an eraser.

Constant fluctuations in our morphologies can get complicated, and engender a sense of cultural disorientation as we struggle to understand where we fit in. At a recent meeting with both British and American colleagues, I chose to remain silent after the one sentence I uttered came out in a transatlantic mishmash of accents. Amidst this confusion, however, I remain grateful that I can relate to and absorb so many cultures, while still maintaining my own distinctive cultural identity.

As one TCK friend of mine who has spent the last few years in Canada put it, “It doesn’t worry me that I’m losing my roots if I suddenly start talking about loonies, toonies, and mounties. Changing the way I speak isn’t going to change my experiences.”

As the threads of my various cultural experiences continue to weave together over time, I have no doubt that I will find a composite voice. Whichever accent(s) it may be in.

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