WE, our Accents and our Identities!
My journey toward learning the English language began late, very late. I was in no position to call myself a fluent speaker even after high school. This tragedy of a Convent-School student of India, made me turn a little bitter towards the spoken aspects of the language, and speakers around me(don’t get me wrong, some of them actually did speak quite well) as well. Foolish as I was, later on I realized the fact that it was the wrong ways of teaching a language in our education systems that obstructed me. I literally had my English teacher correcting my pronunciation where I, was the one saying the word correctly, but I guess she was too much into the “I speak like this only!” idea. On her usual days, when she threw tantrums saying “Don’t take it casual to me!!!”, which of course a fluent speaker of my class picked up and repeated occasionally when she was in the same mood.
Till this day I don’t know where she picked that phrase from. Strange enough, every time I tried to search what it means on Google, blogs featuring things like “Top 5 Rules of Casual Dating” showed up on the top! And of course, I ended up reading all of them, in the hope of my middle school teacher becoming a full-fledged online dating advisor or a guest writer to these popular blogs on casual dating, I was happy for her. Unfortunately, she was nowhere listed as one of the writers.
Luckily though as I got reasonably fluent in the next three years on my own, it made me realize that these fluent speakers aren’t as intelligible to English speakers of other communities as they might be thinking. That’s where I would find myself all cocky and have a great time chatting with people without getting prompted by any interruptions such as “pardon?, sorry, what did you say?, could you repeat that again?” and so on.
But one incident in particular, opened my eyes(or ears, I guess) and helped me understand the difficulties people face while listening to Indian English. I worked at a BPO(Business Process Outsourcing) as a technical support expert for what they claimed to be the biggest electric battery manufacturer on the planet. I had to handle voice calls from clients based in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States. I never had any trouble understanding any of the customers on the phone, their accents were crystal clear to me pretty much every time, strangely enough, the only guy I had an extremely hard time understanding was my boss who was an Indian! He would add a “No?” pretty much every time at the end of the sentences, which confused me to understand what he meant, as the “No” he used was influenced by Hindi which sounds “Naa”, used by Hindi speakers when one asks for someone’s agreement, or tries to confirm something assuming it’s going to be a YES! Can you see how confusing it can be?? Or maybe it’s not confusing, it’s just Hindi. He once complimented me saying “You take nice calls man!”, thank god he didn’t say much in my praise, or else I might’ve missed some of it and wouldn’t know how to respond.
I realized that there are people who’re professionally promoting this idea of calling one’s accent as a part of who they are, which I strongly oppose. How can something you gather while growing up be who you are? Are you not the gatherer anymore, but the gathered now?? I personally love hearing different accents, the emotional roller coaster ride I get to experience with them is almost incomparable, from mimicking the Katakana-influenced accent of Japanese people to sound all cool(or a total weeb), to using an Indian accent(fortunately, now I can) to communicate with people on the Indian streets(and offices) to using a British Accent for which, one of my girlfriends may have a kink for(I guess those casual-dating blogs were of some use after all)! Seeing myself playing with different accent for fun and utility makes me accept and adore them even more. But ignoring the part where it hinders us from communicating effectively can prove to be detrimental for our professional lives.
I mean, it was fun to hear my friend Dr, Kathrin who happened to be an Accent Coach talking about her Gujrati clients living in the States saying ”If you’re no good with business, you’re no Patel, you’re no Patel!”. Topped with the infamous Indian head bobble and hand gesture of denial that are Indian only!
In my spiritual journey as a Yoga practitioner, I found a great solution to tackle this issue. One of my daily practices includes reminding myself that I’m not my body or my mind. So there goes all the gathered pile of identities.
Ironically, in a country like India, where the ancient culture has constantly tried to pass down the same wisdom. To distance yourself from where all the identities exist, call it a persona, social-image, what have you. No matter how religious and spiritual the culture may seem, their core essence of spirituality, the whole “Aham Bramha Asmi(meaning I’m the ultimate, to not something as limited as my race, caste, etc)” thing seems long gone. I love these words of wisdom that ancient India has to offer, and think that they could(and should) be adapted by the speaker of a lingua franca like English anywhere in the world, irrespective of their identities. Once an individual creates a certain distance from the body, the mind, and looks at their English while keeping their identities aside, in my opinion, it will become a heck a lot of an easier task for them to start sounding more intelligible, as it makes them more open to accepting what helps and what hinders.
Laksh is a language acquisition researcher, an online English language Fluency and Pronunciation Coach. His way of working revolves around intensity and involvement with the language. He's been working professionally for the last 2 years and now personally works with clients regarding their pronunciation and fluency-related problems in the English language. He's always open to hearing other people's experiences in acquiring and learning a language.