Monday, March 14, 2011

Is it really "Game off for Asian Accent?"

On March 6th, The Straits Times, Singapore's leading newspaper, published a story about Ms. Kelly Ong, an online gaming commentator who has been ridiculed for being hard to understand. (I wish I could link to the article for you, but it's protected content.) 

In a nutshell, Ms. Ong has been hand-chosen from a number of gamers to be a commentator for one of the Asian Championships for an online game. Now, I know very little about online gaming, but you don't have to listen to her for more than 30 seconds to realize that this girl really knows her stuff!

Regardless, online gamers have been tearing her apart, complaining that she's too hard to understand and that someone with such a "heavy accent" shouldn't be allowed to be a commentator. The Straits Times pointed out that most of these comments were coming from native English speakers.

I wrote into the paper to stand up for Ms. Ong and her accent. They published an edited version of my letter in the Life! Mailbag section (p.E6) on March 12th. Here is my full response explaining why I think we need to redefine a "proper English accent" and "fight the misconception that accent and clarity are linked."

"As a speech trainer specialising in international intelligibility, I read your article, "Game off for Asian Accent" with great interest. Unfortunately, it serves as yet another example of a much wider problem regarding how English is (mis)understood in international settings.

It's very unfortunate that Ms. Ong is drawing more attention for how she says things than what she says. She is obviously very knowledgeable about her subject.

Native English speakers are quick to judge non-native accents as 'wrong' and 'unintelligible' because they view their own accents as the standard (and English teachers throughout the world have reinforced this). With far more non-native English speakers in the world than native ones, it's time to expand our idea of what defines a proper English accent. We also need to fight the misconception that accent and clarity are linked. In fact, they are not. 

One UK-based gamer named Cryodine, commented on her video commentary by saying, "I can say safely that her accent is internationally more understandable then some of the locals in the UK." I would have to agree with this from an international perspective.

There is quite a big difference between what native English speakers will understand and what the international community (with more non-native speakers that native ones) will understand.

Native English speakers will most definitely have problems with certain areas of Ms. Ong's speech (which are quite common for Singapore English speakers):
- deletion of word endings (D, T, N, and L sounds, for example)
- confusion of short and long vowel sounds ('meed-late game push' instead of 'mid-late')
- differing word stress (for example, 'COMmand centre' instead of 'comMAND centre')
- unclear consonant sounds (TH and L are particularly problematic)
- some irregular pauses and speech patterning 

From an international perspective, most of these factors will have no influence on intelligibility. For example, word stress, word endings, and the consonant sounds TH and L, would not cause any difficulty. Most non-native speakers would have far fewer problems understanding her. 

As far as some of the comments saying she puts on an Australian accent or is trying to code switch, I don't really hear that at all. 

Ms. Ong could definitely make some improvements to her speech in order to speak more clearly and be better understood by both native and non-native English speakers. I would highly recommend that she look into getting some training in this regard, but that definitely doesn't mean she needs to change her accent or should.

I wish Ms. Ong the best of luck in her new role, which sounds really exciting and fun, and hope that the negativity regarding her speech doesn't end up holding her back. 

Thanks for the interesting article."

Here are a couple links to Ms. Ong's commentary that were given by The Straits Times. What do you think about the way she speaks?

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