“Are you an international student?”
“Yes. Is it my accent?”
“Yep, I can definitely spot that.”
I’ve lost count of how many times I had that conversation. I had it with an Uber driver, a math instructor while waiting on our cafeteria omelets, another college student in a diversity conference, and with countless other people, even strangers. I learned that being an Indonesian student studying in the United States does not mean that I only have to improve my English test scores; I also have to make myself comprehensible to native speakers.
When I landed in the United States, I realized that my English was not as good as I expected it to be. I stumbled saying simple things such as asking for extra ketchup or asking for directions to the nearest restroom. However, the most significant struggle is that I got tired of repeating words to native speakers because of their difficulty in understanding my accent. Initially, I didn’t think of it as their lack of familiarity to second language English speakers. I thought of it as a lack of skill on my part and a signifier that my English is not “perfect”.
YouTube personality Sacha Stevenson has a great analogy to describe how English is spoken compared to Indonesian. Speaking English is more like a swimming jellyfish, emphasizing one or two stressed syllables per word, compared to Indonesian which sounds more like a constant attack. This results in some second language English speakers stressing the wrong syllables, for example, ac-A-dem-ic instead of ac-a-DEM-ic. During my first year in college, I listened to professors speaking and highlighted stressed syllables in my little notebook -- which is a good thing, as native English speakers started to understand me better.
However, this process didn’t stop at clarity. I wanted to be flawless. I tried to be indiscernible. I made more friends with native speakers and decided to eliminate the constant charge of the Indonesian accent, not knowing that my obsession with perfection removes the uniqueness of my English discourse.
The shame of having my accent is rooted in mockery. Growing up, I saw a lot of negative portrayals in the media mocking Asian accents, and as I learned English, I wanted to get out of that accent box so I won’t be treated as “the other”.
The definition of “having no accent” also adds to my insecurity. Why is a person speaking a standard American accent can be said as having no accent? So, if an American accent is the cornerstone of English pronunciation, I have to work until I have no accent, I thought. These harmful notions and stereotypes hindered me from retaining my identity in speaking English.
In my second year of college, I had a more profound understanding of how the English language works. I got hired as a writing tutor for my college, where I help second language English speakers. I read essays by Kazakh students describing their grandmothers making beshbarmak, Taiwanese students writing about how to make bubble tea, and other culture-specific papers. I traversed a lot of accents and found them all understandably clear, and, contrary to my initial mindset, I find it beautiful for my college community to have diverse ways of speaking English.
I also talked about the struggles of being a second language English speaker with the students I tutored, and through their accents, we discussed sounds that are familiar in their mother tongue, yet unfamiliar in English. The cultural diversity of my community won’t be highlighted as much if everyone speaks with a standard American accent. I realized that by being a second language speaker, I am bringing my culture to the table, and the way I speak English reflects something about my identity.
Since then, I have become more confident in speaking with an Indonesian accent, while at the same time retaining the swimming jellyfish-like qualities of the English language for clarity. The more I speak it, the more I find myself introducing my culture to non-Indonesians. I’ve never spoken to anyone who thought that I resemble a fraction of a Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I felt comfortable about that because I have more confidence in myself.
There is no “correct” English accent, because if a British accent can be appreciated as much as having “no accent” does, why can’t I be proud of my Asian accent? I roll my “r”s, I prolong my “a”s, and sometimes I say “hit” when I mean to say “heat”. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Patricia Kusumaningtyas is an undergraduate computer science student (with a deep interest in computational linguistics) currently studying at Columbia University after transferring from a community college in the United States. When she's not solving problem sets or analyzing The Iliad, you can find her enjoying obscure movies or conquering pop culture trivia. You can contact her through her email address at [email protected].