Article: Foreigners, accents and broken English

Foreigners, accents and broken English

(image: Floating market of Cần Thơ, Mekong Delta, Vietnam, from Doron. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)

So technically I have other things to do besides writing a blog post (*cough* novel *cough* Christmas presents *cough*), but hey, what do you know.

Let’s talk “broken English” for a moment.[1]

It won’t surprise you that I have issues with doing accents or broken English for POC characters. That’s because the “broken English by POCs” stereotype is common and pretty harmful.

It’s almost systematically deployed with foreigners speaking English, to various degrees (generally people from Europe etc. get heavily accented English, and POCs from outside Europe get broken English with an accent to boot). It’s harmful because this becomes, whether the author intended it or not, the defining trait of ESL speakers and non-white speakers of “non-US/UK” English (roughly speaking, it gets worse the further away from the “First World” you get): I know it’s unfair, but by and large, the only thing that people remember from a given character is whether they speak “funny” or not, before they remember other quirks and traits, because not speaking properly erases everything else in the reader’s memory (and part of this, I feel, comes from the overly negative judgment passed on people who fail to speak English “properly”, which is a cultural thing and one that I personally find more than a little odd).

It perpetuates the notion that no one (or only the favoured few, which then takes on the mantle of the “civilised people” and all its attendant baggage) can speak English properly in XX Asian/African/other majority non-white country. It’s a Hollywood staple; it’s a feature in US/UK work that is, as far as I’m concerned, overly present (again, because of the overly negative value placed on not speaking English properly).

I’m not saying everyone in Asia/Africa/etc. speaks perfect, accentless English. There’s certainly some amount of not really great or accented English going around–but because of the underlying stereotypes, having this in fiction contributes to a narrative that I’m not very happy with.

[1] I make a difference between dialects and broken English: it’s a degree difference. Broken English is meant to be “not right”: it’s not gramatically correct, and it’s used almost solely to demonstrate that the speaker is not fluent in English. It’s not the same as, say, Singlish, which is English spoken natively by people who have a different idea of it. Though some times people will think that Singlish is gramatically incorrect and not “real” English. Let’s just say that’s very wrong, and very very hurtful to actual speakers.


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