When I tell people that Tall Story will be published in the Philippines in July, their immediate question is: "In English?"
Well, yes. English is one of two official languages in the Philippines - the other one being Filipino, a language based on the majority dialect Tagalog, one of 171 native languages spoken in the country. With so many languages, Filipino educators have long sought a single, unifying language and Filipino was created to do just that.
So us Pinoys have a love-hate relationship with English - on the one hand, it seems an advantage to speak an international language, on the other hand, it's the language of our colonizers, the United States, who came in 1898 purportedly to Christianize the Filipinos (not realizing that we'd been Catholics under Spain for 300 years).
When I'm visiting my family in the Philippines, I slip easily into the combined English-Tagalog patois spoken in Manila. But when friends in England ask me to demonstrate, I find it incredibly difficult to perform on demand.
For some strange psychological reason, when in the UK, I maintain an American accent with some British vowels.
There's a an online speech accent archive at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia where they're collecting accents. To join, all you have to do is record yourself reading from a text that is claimed to contain most of the consonants, vowels and clusters of Standard American English.
Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train stationSo here I am reading the text in the accent I use on a daily basis in the UK.
And here is the accent I revert to the moment I get home to the Philippines.
In the Philippines, as it is here in England, accents carry status connotations that heavily influence how one may be perceived by others - with one's perceived poshness relative to how Hollywood neutral your accent might be. My father, an artistic, creative soul, spoke four languages and though his English was complex, he couldn't quite shake off that heavy Visayan accent. My mother, an English teacher, has a clean, " received Hollywood" accent and no matter the state of her purse, she commands instant obsequiousness amongst the less linguistically adept.
In an article in today's Guardian, Steven H Weinberger, who runs the accents archive, insists that accents have nothing to do with ability or intelligence, they are "systematic rather than mistaken speech".
Crucial to an understanding of accents is that they are "systematic rather than merely mistaken speech", Weinberger says. This can counter what he describes as "biased social judgments" based on people's accents. "When we understand that accents are not due to 'errors' or faulty learning, we may be more sympathetic to the speakers. But biases are hard to unlearn."Accent can be something of a tragedy for some people. A good friend of mine who speaks with an accent thick enough to slice is constantly made to suffer for it in the form of GPs ignoring her and various petty officials dismissing her as a crank. But if I pick up the phone on her behalf, she is amazed by the speed and courtesy with which people respond to my perceived-to-be less offensive accent.
In Tall Story, I have a Filipino character who, once he arrives in London, finds himself at a linguistic disadvantage when he tries to express himself in English - with hilarious results. But I make sure that the reader is party to his complex thoughts and feelings.
I hope it goes a little way towards demonstrating that you really can't judge a human being by his or her dodgy accent.