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This Pinay’s Opinion

By Dr Lilia Servillano

A few years ago, when I went home to Manila for a visit, I had a quick reunion with some old classmates from high school. In the course of the conversation one of them recounted an experience he had with a call centre employee whose English was not quite perfect.

She mispronounced some words during their conversation and he was unhappy about it, insisting on speaking to her manager instead. He made fun of the way she spoke and my other friends laughed at the anecdote, but I didn’t find it funny at all. I thought that it was rather mean of him to ridicule her in that way. He was fortunate enough to have grown up in a well-to-do family, to have gone to one of the best and most expensive high schools in Manila, to have been educated in the United States and to be able to speak well. But that was not an excuse to adopt a superior attitude to the members of the hoi polloi, especially those who are doing their best with what they have.

Growing up in the Philippines, many of us can relate to the fact that we were taught to speak very good and clear English, adopting the American accent. In fact, how many times have we laughed at others when they mispronounced words or spoke with incorrect grammar? I confess that I’ve been guilty of that; thinking that I was superior to others who didn’t speak the high standard of English expected in Philippine upper society. I would have probably laughed with my classmates about that incident – if I still lived in Manila then. Well, migrating has taught me many valuable lessons. One of that is that there are, in fact, many English accents and none of them are wrong. But you only realize this if you leave your own backyard.

New Zealand is a melting pot of people from different nationalities AND with different English accents. Living here for many years, I have developed an appreciation and respect for the different English accents that surround me every day.

So, why are there many different accents? Simply because if your first language is not English then the initial language you learned intrudes into the way you pronounce and speak English, hence the variety of accents heard: Philippine-English, Singaporean-English, Maori-English, Indian-English, Italian-English, Spanish-English and so on.

I actually think that it is quite quaint to have an accent, because it identifies where you are from. The funniest thing I’ve also discovered is that even so called native speakers of English can be barely understood sometimes! Consider Kiwi English. Raise your hand if, when you first arrived here, you dreaded answering the phone or speaking to a local because you couldn’t understand their English accent? I know I did!

Consider the Scots, the Welsh, some Britons – if you listen to them speak with their thick accents it’s very difficult to understand them. How many times have hubby and I found ourselves shouting at the TV, telling the people on-screen to speak English! Even in the United States, in what I call the deep southern states, it’s very difficult to understand people talking, because they tend to eat their words and their accent is quite garbled.

Of course, occasionally I still cringe inside when I come across a misspelled word (it’s deeply ingrained in me to spell well, having been the top representative of my 5th grade class in the school’s Spelling Bee) or someone writing grammatically wrong (can’t be helped, being a Literature major), but I am more tolerant, let’s put it that way. I have also discovered that even native English speakers can write an essay that is full of grammar and spelling mistakes!

So, if you are self-conscious about your English then languish no more. As long as you can get your thoughts across, even if your English is not perfect – what is ‘perfect’ after all? – that’s all that matters. What’s wrong with my English? Absolutely nothing.

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