Is there something a little bit different about the way Asian-Australian native English speakers, like myself, talk?
April 9, 2021, 3:15 a.m. ET
I was watching a reality TV show the other day — fine, it was “Married at First Sight” — when something about how one of the contestants spoke caught my attention. It was typical native-level Australian English and not particularly remarkable. But it sounded familiar, somehow.
It took me a while to work it out: It reminded me of the way some of my classmates from my all-girls, majority Asian-Australian high school spoke. Was there something to it?
A 2 a.m. Google search turned up minimal academic results. But I found one article by a linguistics student, from a similar background to mine, hypothesizing the existence of an “Asian-Australian accent” among people who grew up speaking English but come from culturally diverse backgrounds.
I was intrigued. Did I just think I was hearing something because of visual cues I was seeing onscreen, or could such an accent exist? And more important (in my mind), as a Chinese-Australian, did I have it?
The answer to the latter question was yes, according to the author of the article, 23-year-old Baopu He. “If I didn’t know who you were, I’d strongly suspect you were Asian-Australian,” he told me over the phone.
For example, “the way you say ‘someone’ is really Asian-Australian,” he said. The usual way would be to place about equal stress on both syllables. But when I said it, the “m” wasn’t as pronounced. The word “starts at the back of your mouth and the vowel travels a little bit more.”
It’s a slight, hard-to-describe difference. But generally, he characterized the Asian-Australian accent as having more elongated vowels at the end of words, and a tendency to mash together syllables of a word. The phrase “oh my god” might sound more like “omagaaw.”
He realized while in high school that the way he and his friends spoke was slightly different from that of other Australians. At James Ruse Agricultural High School, he’d been surrounded mainly by students from Asian backgrounds, as I’d been at North Sydney Girls High School. (They’re both “academically gifted” selective schools where many immigrant parents aspire to send their children.)
“You’re in a sociocultural bubble, linguistic bubble, in the sense that you don’t get a lot of sound bites from mainstream Australians,” Baopu said. “That’s an environment where it’s easy for unorthodox speech patterns to be replicated.”
At university, he researched the phenomenon. When he asked people to listen to voice recordings of Asian-Australians and non-Asian Australians without any context, most were able to distinguish between the two. It was part of his undergraduate linguistics degree, so not definitive by any means, but he believed it pointed to the possibility that such an accent existed.
I didn’t quite know how to feel about it. I’d always thought that for those like me who don’t “look Australian,” a typical Australian accent is one of the best ways to prove that we belong. It says: Just like the rest of you, we probably know how to have a conversation about the footy and are well versed in throwing shrimps on the barbie (to be honest, I can do neither of those things). It says: We’ve sufficiently shed our foreignness, so please accept us into the mainstream. It is, admittedly, a very model-minority way of thinking.
“There’s this ingrained idea that the accent binds us together,” Baopu said. “So to say, no we don’t share the same accent, there’s something destabilizing about it.”
He had some hesitations when doing his research. What was the benefit in seeking out points of difference? Was he creating more possibility for division? I had similar misgivings when writing this — especially when Baopu didn’t recognize the Asian-Australian accent in the reality TV contestant I thought I’d heard it in.
We may hear accents where none exist because of the way someone looks, and it’s easy to venture into the realm of stereotyping, said Catherine Travis, a linguistics professor at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at the Australian National University.
Professor Travis has been studying modern Australian speech, and while her research so far hasn’t found anything like the type of accent Baopu and I were discussing, she said there was something notable about the way second-generation Chinese-Australians speak.
Australian English used to have a large class distinction — from something like your stereotypical Crocodile Dundee accent on one end to something resembling a posh British accent on the other. But that gap has narrowed in the last few decades, she said. There’s been a shift toward a more universal middle-class accent, and Chinese-Australians have been at the forefront, sometimes adopting new ways of speaking before the rest of the country catches up.
Just looking at the way they pronounce their vowels, which is what she’s been studying so far, “people wouldn’t be able to systematically distinguish between middle-class Australians and Chinese-Australians,” she said.
It reflects the flattening of class across Australia combined with the upward mobility of Chinese-Australians.
“For Chinese-Australians, sounding Australian doesn’t mean emphasizing your Chinese background, and it doesn’t mean sounding like you’re a working-class Australian. Sounding Australian means sounding middle class,” Professor Travis said.
Rather than a marker of difference, it could be a marker of class that crosses ethnic boundaries.
Maybe what I initially thought was “Asian-Australian” is really just a different kind of Australianness after all?
How do you think the Australian accent and way of speaking is changing? What do you notice about changes in how people in Australia talk now compared to the past? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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