Language and Accent Issues

by Krishna on August 31, 2007

Ouch!

I landed on this Wikipedia article on Indian English which had some of the common mistakes in Indian English grammar. After decades of speaking and writing English, it is funny how some of the incorrect English habits (or “grammar tweaks”, as they call it) persists in my speaking and writing. Reading an article is the textual equivalent of seeing a parody of oneself.

In India, proper British English is taught in Indian schools and colleges. And many educational institutions are English-medium. Unfortunately, there is not much opportunity available for children to practice English outside the classroom. Until the advent of cable TV, there was very little English they could listen to, either. Things are changing nowadays, though, with increased globalization, but despite that, the primary spoken language is the local language.

Since I grew up in Kuwait, I didn’t face such issues. There, the situation was that the Indian children came from different states in India and spoke different languages. So the only way we could communicate in or outside the school was talk in English. The problem was that there were no native English speakers, such as from England or the United States. So we never dropped our Indian accents.

When I went back to India, I sub-consciously picked up some of the usages of Indian English grammar through friends and teachers. And then while working in Bangalore and Chennai and later managing offshore teams, I got exposed to different variants of Indian English. Here, the thing to remember is that you must use those variants instead of using perfect English; otherwise chances are that you will be misunderstood. For example, if you don’t use phrases like “Only if you do this…“, “This is nothing but…“, people may not understand the importance of what you really want them to do or understand.

One of the funniest usages I have encountered is the confusion between “hope” and “think” for some people. When I come back after a sick day, my offshore team members would ask me, “What happened yesterday? We hope you were ill. We think you will get better.” The first time, this really stunned me. Later, I got used to it and I tried to eliminate my use of those words to avoid confusing them.

The Indian accent is really a big drag when you come to the United States for the first time. I remember going to a retailer once and asking an associate, “Where can I get fluorescent bulbs?” She looked confused and asked, “You want a Barbie doll?” She did seem odd, so I am not entirely sure if it was my accent that led to this misunderstanding. 🙂 I also had enormous trouble ordering “Vanilla Chai” from Dunkin’ Donuts. Don’t ask me why.

There is this time-honored practice of Americans speaking English slowly and loudly to foreigners who don’t understand English. The reality is that Indians here are usually reduced to doing exactly that. Our normal speech is way too fast that most Americans have a tough time understanding us. So we have to slow down, use a louder voice and distinctly pronounce each word. After some time, you get used to the new style.

One of the companies we worked with had another partnership with a Russian outsourcing company. The developers, who were based in Moscow, were very smart people who wrote perfect English, but they would never come on the telephone. They would only communicate through email or chat because they found that phone calls didn’t work for them with their accents. This is true – sometimes if a person has a very thick accent, you need to do lip reading in addition to using your ears to understand them. For example,

“Djya sine zcon tract? aaru fyn vid chaynj two kloz phiph teen on zcon tract phen altyes.”
“So you are telling me you didn’t make any changes to clause 15 on contract penalties. Great! I will sign and have this faxed over right away.”

Moral: Don’t do this stuff over the phone.

Once you have an accent, it is very tough to “let it go”. Very few people ever do, regardless of their origin (Europe, Asia or Africa). Sometimes the accent is cute to the natives, like these British nationals in the States (scroll to the 37th over), but other times, an accent is just an accent. It, therefore, comes a minor shock when you see an Asian (or Indian) person start speaking perfect American English. Then you realize that they are American citizens born here (with one or two immigrant parents) and have been speaking like that all their life.

As the world continues to integrate and you work with people of different nationalities, you will increasingly have to deal with language issues on your side as well as from other people. Such issues used to be rare, only faced by top managers who specialized in international management and kept flying around. Now, individual contributors too have to grapple with it sooner or later.

Are you ready?

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