Accent and Ethnic Identity in Singapore

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The primary focus of this study was to examine the relationship between accent and ethnic identity among the three major ethnic groups in Singapore. More specifically, we aimed to uncover whether a speaker’s ethnic identity can be recognized through his/her accent. Assuming accentual differences do exist between the different ethnic groups, we planned to investigate whether members of the same ethnic group can recognize their own accent more accurately than those from other communities.

Our results did not provide conclusive evidence to suggest that a person’s ethnic identity can be recognized through accent alone. Among all the participants who took part in this study, the average correct identification rate of the speaker’s ethnicity is only 55%. This seemed to suggest that in Singapore, accent alone might not be a significant indicator of a person’s ethnic identity.

To develop a better understanding of this finding, it is essential to consider the linguistic context of Singapore. In the study conducted by Eades, Fraser, Siegel, McNamara and Baker (2003), it was highlighted that “language spread and linguistic change” could be a significant factor to account for why accent alone might not be sufficient to recognize a speaker’s ethnic identity accurately (p. 183-184). Singapore is a multi-racial and multi-lingual nation with a short history of independence. The incidence of interaction between the different ethnic groups is intensified by its small land area, dense population and interdependent economy. Against this backdrop, it is reasonable to posit an evolution of linguistic features, creating a nexus where the different accents stemming from the different ethnic groups in Singapore undergo an evolution. The exact accentual changes and consequences that could arise from such an evolution are beyond the scope of this study. However, this particular aspect of our result could provide cues for a more thorough investigation of accentual differentiation or integration in Singapore.

The results do, however, provide more substantial evidence to prove that members of the same ethnic group tend to be able to identify speakers of their own ethnicity more accurately than others could. This trend was consistent throughout all three major ethnic groups in our study. In this aspect, our results are consonant with previous studies conducted. Flege, Munro and MacKay (1995) reasoned that the language usage frequency of a language can affect the accuracy of accent identification (p. 3130). From Cutler, Dehan and Donselaar’s study (1997), we can infer that awareness of a language’s linguistic features is a key factor in the accurate identification of an accent, since “listeners will apply their native language-specific procedures to foreign language input” (p. 148). In our study, we can safely state that the participants from the respective ethnic groups spoke their ethnic language more frequently that the rest. In fact, only a very small percentage of our participants can speak the language of another ethnic group. This could possibly imply that our participants from the respective ethnic groups are able to identify their own ethnic speakers more accurately due to their greater awareness of and higher proficiency in their ethnic language, which eventually results in a heightened ability to recognize their own “ethnic accent”.

Our results also showed that Chinese speakers were most accurately identified – not only by the three major ethnic groups, but also by non-Singaporeans as well. Amongst all the participants, the correct identification rate of Chinese speakers was 74%. Malay and Indian speakers were correctly identified by 46% and 43% of the respondents. Considering that the majority of Singapore’s population, 75.2%, is from the Chinese community, this trend is not surprising (Statistics Singapore, 2000). Indeed, Major (2007) elucidated the possibility of non-native speakers to have similar accentual perceptions as native speakers even though their “productions might differ” (p. 540). Boughton (2006) pointed out that a community’s “‘availability’ to be perceived and commented on” could contribute to increased linguistic awareness among the general population (282). Being the significantly largest ethnic community in Singapore, we can postulate a higher degree of awareness of the “Chinese accent” and its linguistic features among the general population. The fact that non-Singaporeans identified Chinese speakers (64%) much more accurately that Malay (25%) or Indian (26%) speakers further reinforces the assumption that the amount of ‘contact time’ one has with a particular community would enhance his/her awareness of its accent, which could be a significant factor in accounting for the correct identification of an ethnic accent.

The final objective of this study – whether non-Singaporeans could accurately identify the ethnicity of speakers through their accent – has been adequately addressed by the discussion above. Non-Singaporeans had the lowest (39%) average correct identification rate among all the participants involved in this study, providing strong evidence to suggest that length of residence, availability and intensity of interaction, as well as linguistic awareness of accentual differences are all factors that affects the proper identification of the accent of a particular ethnic group.

This study has managed to introduce the nature of accent identification and ethnicity in Singapore. However, it is not the intention of this paper to develop a judgmental and conclusive perspective about the role of accent and ethnic identification in the Singaporean context. Instead, this study can provide a useful platform for researchers to further investigate several issues which need to be addressed before we can develop a complete understanding about the role of accent in ethnic identity. The unique evolution of linguistic features within each ethnic community in Singapore, in particular, deserves further attention in this field of study.


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