Sunday, October 28, 2007

Is there prejudice against Indian English?

Several years ago I tutored an Indian man who had lived in the United States for more than 20 years. What he wanted to do was to change his accent. Although he was a naturalized American citizen and had clearly mastered English, he was starting his own business in San Diego and wanted to sound more 'American,' especially on the phone. He believed that when people heard his "Indian" accent, they were more likely to dismiss him or his product.

Later, I realized what he was talking about as last year, I had to deal with several customer support people for last minute flight and hotel cancellations. (Unexpectedly, my husband had to be hospitalized.) By the end of my conversations, I was feeling angry and frustrated with the representatives of the airlines and hotel who were obviously not speakers of American English and were likely "outsourced" employees of these companies. They sounded like "Indians," but even more irritating was that their expressions were obviously rehearsed (constant repetition of the same lines) and sometimes inappropriate. I didn't feel that they fully understood my English, and I certainly didn't understand a third of theirs.

Since the many Englishes of the world are a focus of this blog, I'm presenting some of the links I visited recently on the topic of Indian (African, Asian, etc.) English. A recent article in The Times of India concerns the plight of Indian English speakers.

As a result of all this interest in speaking a 'standard' English, however, there are lots of employment opportunities for British and American ESL teachers equipped to instruct accent reduction courses. Here's a link discussing what is meant by "accent neutralization" or reduction. Working on accents is big business now because of all the outsourcing of phone sales agents to other countries. There are many tech-support centers based in India (click here) which are trying to cope with the problem of producing agents that have mild accents and appropriate sociolinguistic skills to handle phone talk.

There has been some backlash to the pressure on Indians to change their accents, and I ran across one blog suggesting that Indian English should be recognized as a major English of the world and that Indians should not have to adjust their accents to suit our ears.

Finally, I offer you an amusing 1.5 minute clip of Peter Sellers imitating various British accents on 'YouTube' and a more serious discussion of the variety of English accents from the British Library's collection. You can spend a lot of time here delving into the library's various links and listen to different accents while reading transcripts.


Anonymous said...

Accent is a pain in the neck for everyone. Speaking English with an accent-free would be my pie in the sky.

I have worked on my pronunciations with native English speakers.
They would instructed me to do the same thing by showing their tongue and lips.
They tried to drill it in me, but it went nowhere because they couldn't explain why I was making wrong sounds.
My tonge moves differently from English speakers.
The breathing, the usage of lips, and throught vibration are nothign in common.
For everyday person like me, it's impossible to mimic the sounds without these understaindings,.
There are many sounds that don't exist in my native language.
Therefore, not only are my native pronunciations substitutable, but also I can't even hear them.

After practicing each single sound of vowel and consonant valiantly,
I managed to train my ears enough to differentiate. However, I still failed to mimic them.
Despite the fact that it was a painful and long process to reach this point,
It was highly unlikely that I was understood, and I was frustrated.

Later, I learned that there are professionals such as a speech therapist.
They are specialized in fixing pronunciation, tones, and accent for those who has problems with speaking.
These professionals are equipped with the ability to pinpoint and analyse their students' habits.
They can guide you with logic and technique.

I've taken lessons with them, and there were some eye-opening findings.
That is even the same vowel or consonant is produced by different tongue movements.
It's depends on what vowel or consonant antecede and proceed the pronunciations that you'd produce. They are all connected.
No wonder I hit the cealing. The struggle is as same as learning singing. Even if I sing sol-fa, it's not necessarily means I'm a good singer.
This explains my pains, and helped my pronunciations improve.

There is another fact that made me feel I'm not in a win-win situation.
My language requires pronouncing each single alphabet with the same length and strength.
To acquire the English rhythm and tones is as if a line dancing dancer is trying to become a tango dancer.

To me to eliminate my accents 100% seems unconquerable. However,I'd like to believe that never be too late than not realizing it.

evelyn said...

Thank you very much for your comment. I can imagine your frustration trying to eliminate your accent. It takes a lot of effort in any language to get rid of your native inflections and rhythm.

In my view,the goal in learning to speak another language is not to have no accent but to speak well enough that you are comfortable using the language and your listener isn't straining to understand you.

In my fifth consecutive year of studying Spanish everyday (from junior high school into my freshman year of college), I was delighted when my Spanish professor at UCLA (who was Colombian) could not identify exactly where I came from. As you may know, there are many Spanishes (just like there are many Englishes!). He did not identify me as American, but I didn't have an identifiable accent of any particular country. I felt that this was probably the best I could do, given that I had never lived, at that time, outside of the United States. It's a fantasy right now that I might be able to achieve a similar level with Japanese, but I know it know it will be a lot of work!

Laurelle Walsh said...

Since first reading this essay, I've given a lot of thought to the topic of accents in English. Per Evelyn's suggestion, I browsed the plentiful "YouTube" discussions on the topic, I paid attention to the accents I heard on BBC radio and NPR, and I replayed (in my mind) some of the personal difficulties I've had in understanding different Englishes.

I remember Mark (Marcos?) an ESL teacher at the ICAE who grew up speaking Portugese in Brazil, learned English in school in his teens, and quickly became so accomplished in English that he passes as a native speaker of American English. I also know many others who seem unable to lose their strong accents in English; some of these folks have lived in the U.S. for over 40 years and have struggled professionally and personally because of their accents.

English around the world contains many variations. Why couldn't I understand the shopkeeper in New Zealand who said I could buy "sex heegs"? (She meant " 6 eggs"). Kiwi English just grates on my ears. On the other hand, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, an NPR reporter from Ghana, has the most beautifully-accented, understandable English, I could listen to her all day. An accent can be cute, distinguished, even sexy (as numerous "YouTube" videos will attest to).

So, accents aren't really the problem. Pronunciation is the problem. Naturally, some of it boils down to what you're used to hearing. I'm sure that those phone-support operators in India have no trouble understanding each-others' English. However, if even customers like Evelyn (mild-mannered ESL instructor) are frustrated by their "Indian English", then there is a problem.

evelyn said...

You raised an interesting point, Laurelle, about accent vs. pronunciation. After reading your comment, I had a discussion with my Japanese tutor who had read your comment. I gave one explanation of a difference between accent and pronunciation (e.g., the difference between saying a word in a way that is comprehensible, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger saying "Kalifournia" with his Austrian-German accent and a French speaker saying "deodórant," which would constitute a mispronunciation of the word "deódorant" and was not comprehensible to my husband. The man finally spelled it out after several repetitions, at which point my husband "got it." However, maybe you have some better examples of what you mean by 'pronunciation' and 'accent.'

Indeed, I have some friends from India who are highly educated and have lived here in the US for a number of years, both having earned Ph.D.'s. When we speak on the phone, which is our main mode of communication now (since they don't live in San Diego anymore), I have to concentrate very hard even though I should be familiar with their accents.

I was embarrassed once when I must have sounded like an ESL instructor. My friend was referring to the environmental organization Earthwatch, and I thought she was saying 'Artwatch.' Because I had never heard of such a thing, I thought maybe she meant some kind of 'Artwalk.' Finally, after several repetitions and an explanation of what the organization does, I understood what word she was saying. My response was something like, "Ohhhh! Earthwatch, not "Artwatch," emphasizing the 'er' sound and 'th.' Was the problem accent or pronunciation?

Eleven said...

I found that my post about prejudice against Indian English was referenced at the following blog ( This blog has quite a few links and deals specifically with the topic of Indian English. Check it out for more on this topic.

maxqnz said...

"Speaking English with an accent-free would be my pie in the sky."

There is no such thing as "accent-free English" I'm a Kiwi who used to cringe at my own accent once I learned to hear it through my efforts at learning other languages. Now I revel in the variety of accents there are. I have ALWAYS been especially fond of the various Indian accents, from my own father's Anglo-Indian accents and the Fijian Gujurati accent of my childhood neighbours to the Punjab, Kerala and Ooty accents of my current friends.

I can sympathise with those who are the victims of anti-Indian "accentism" but I say, be proud of the beauty and richness your accents add to the wondrous muddle that is English.

evelyn said...

Thanks very much for your comment. I completely agree with you. Accents in any language add flavor to a conversation. I'm not familiar with all the accents you describe, but I hope to travel to India and your part of the world some day to immerse myself in more of this 'wondrous muddle.'