(Request to my readers, especially my subscribers: There’s a question right at the end of this post which I’d appreciate if you could answer. Reading the post will help explain the context but perhaps not everyone among you has time, so I wanted to flag the question for your attention in the beginning.)
Travelling around and living in different places makes you notice certain things about a place fairly quickly. One of the first things you notice is – this is no surprise – is the way people speak. However, it takes a few months to get the idiosyncrasies down pat.
When I first went to the UK, many other Indian students hit the ground running with a ‘fake’ accent. (I, personally, have never been able to do that.) And you know what? The reason people do this, to an extent, is justified. What I have learnt through numerous interactions with British, American, Canadian – ‘Western’ friends, if you will – is that a fair number of them genuinely have a hard time understanding the Indian accent. Some tell me they may understand only three-quarters of what a person with an Indian accent, and then use context to fill in the rest.
Bet it’s the same with a majority of Indians when they watch American movies / television shows. You’ll notice how theatrical releases of films in India almost never have subtitles as is standard in practically every other country where English is not a native language, but cinemas in India cater to an upmarket or an aspirational crowd. On satellite TV movie channels, on the other hand, captioning has been so popular that all channels quickly adopted it and saw a rise in viewership. I have friends with an impeccable command over written English, yet are completely lost without subtitles when listening. An explanation offered for this is that “Westerners speak too fast” but on the other side of the pond, er, ocean, they think the exact opposite! This is probably just a case of ‘feeling’ that someone is speaking fast because you cannot catch what they are saying. Try learning a new language and you’ll always feel that native speakers speak ‘too fast’.
It can get much worse than that. I encountered situations in the UK, try as hard as they might, people couldn’t understand what I was saying. This goes both ways. For a quick headcount, how many of you can understand what comedian Kevin Bridges is saying in this video from Live at the Apollo roadshow?
(The Welsh and the Scottish accents are notoriously hard to understand, even among native English speakers from England. Shed a silent tear for me – my two roommates last semester were both Scots.)
This reminds me of a funny anecdote from first year at university. We (my batchmates and I) used to work together in the computing labs on our software engineering assignments and ended up discussions possible solutions with each other. Now, the Indian way of pronouncing ‘arrays’ is ‘ah-rays’, while the British way of pronouncing it is ‘uh-rays’. By the end of the year, I was pronouncing it ‘uh-rays’ and my English friend – a legit scouse – was saying it the Indian way!
I had an interesting debate with my current roommate (who’s from Canada) this semester. We were trying to solve a physics question when I used the trigonometrical abbreviation ‘cos’. He laughed and said the correct pronunciation is like in ‘cosine’ with the ‘-ine’ ending chopped off; I disagreed and said it’s like in the ending of ‘because’. We made a bet; the hard part came when trying to prove ourselves right. No matter how much we searched on YouTube for lectures on trigonometry (video channels such as MIT OpenCourseWare etc), none of the speakers used ‘cos’ as an abbreviation! That’s another thing I learnt that day – how pervasive the use of the full form ‘cosine’, ‘tangent’, ‘cosecant’ et al is in American English.
I eventually posted the pronunciation of ‘cos’ question on English Language & Usage Stack Exchange. Responses from the forum posters confirmed my suspicion that mine was the British English pronunciation while my roommate’s was the American / Canadian English pronunciation. As an aside, our pronunciation of hyperbolic functions is miles apart too – he pronounces ‘sinh’ similar to ‘cinch’ while I pronounce it as ‘shine’, and so on for the other functions.
But enough of maths for now. No matter how well-read you are, and regardless of whether you are a native speaker of English language or not, there will always be words whose pronunciation trips you. One common scenario is when you read a word long before you learn the correct pronunciation through real-life usage – there’s an entirely fascinating thread on EL&U StackExchange (again) on words that are said entirely unlike how they are written. Go through those pages and I’m certain you’ll discover a clutch of words you have been speaking the wrong way all this while!
Word choice is also a curiosity you notice when you meet other people on travels. For instance, in the UK when someone uses the term ‘Asian’, they usually mean someone of Indian / Pakistani / Bangladeshi origin; any other ethnic groups are specifically referred to, such as Chinese. In Canada and US on the other hand, as I often notice when talking to my (current) roommate, ‘Asian’ usually means Chinese (and sometimes Korean or Japanese) – basically, anyone with ‘Oriental-looking’ features. Other Asian continent ethnicities such as Indians are referred to specifically. This makes for hilarious misunderstandings as we both have to make a mental pit-stop every time the word is used to check whether the intent has been communicated properly.
Accent, on the other hand, is something you will naturally pick up if you spend time long enough with a group of people, just like my scouse friend who started saying ‘ah-rays’. Accents are contagious. There is no such thing, however, as ‘an English accent’. England – and in the broader sense, the UK – has a wonderfully colourful range of accents from town-to-town. What most people think is an English accent, from Hollywood movies or from American TV shows, is a close variation of Received Pronunciation. Basically, the idea of an ‘English accent’ is just like thinking all people from Russia / former Soviet Union speak the same way. :p (The only commonality, really, is they all drink vodka.)
As an Indian, you would call something an ‘accent’ if it differed from your style of speaking, but for an American there is no such thing as an ‘American accent’ because it’s all the same to them. I’ve heard people say that the Indian ‘accent’ is a lack of an accent; the example quoted was Indians pronounce ‘pi’ as ‘pie’, most Western speakers pronounce it as ‘phye’. But there’s a reason why ‘p’ is accompanied by an expelling of air in many accents, and it is to distinguish the sound from ‘b’. (Similarly, ‘t’ and ‘d’ are distinguished by aspiration when pronouncing the former.) Even when learning Mandarin, the ‘p’ / ‘b’ and ‘t’ / ‘d’ sounds are distinguished by making one aspirated. Conversing with British and American speakers you’ll quickly realise that the Indian quirk of not doing so will confuse them between, with ‘peer’ and ‘beer’, if context is missing. With the most of Western accents and the Chinese ganging up, Indians better fucking toe the line, so to speak. ;)
This is why over time people tend to unconsciously start mimicking the speech tones and styles of the country they live in. What sounds like a trivial issue is actually a major concern when due to those little quirks, someone at a sandwich shop or (especially) people on the telephone (customer service? Often based out of Ireland, Wales, or Scotland for UK companies. Fricking nightmare talking to them!) cannot follow a simple conversation.
Everyone has their own accent quirks, so how rapidly you pick up an accent, my experience suggests, is how comfortable people around you are in being able to understand what you say. That’s the strongest catalyst in bringing about accent shifts; anything else is incidental. Although for people who use ‘fake’ accents (call centre employees) the reason is not just to make oneself understood, but also to shed the stereotypes associated with an accent. L ike someone with an Indian accent is probably called Rajeev, eats curry for lunch, lives in Bangalore, et al. (This tactic doesn’t work as companies shift call centre operations in droves to Philippines instead of staying in India.)
My accent has been whacked all over the place. People you converse with regularly influence this, and when I was in the UK this meant I unconsciously picked up bits and bobs from a range of accents – thus resulting in something that approaches close to a ‘generic’ English accent. Then, I come to Singapore and I’ve to live with two Scots for months – probably picked up a bit of a Scottish accent then. (And lost it, by now. But when you’re around a Scot, it’s hard not to speak like them – it’s so contagious!) Current roommate is Canadian, who works often in New York – so a bit of that. And then come all the Singaporeans, Indians in Singapore, other exchange students say from Germany / France / Finland / Australia, Chinese-origin students who have went to Cambridge board schools…well, let’s just say my accent is a clusterfuck right now. On the bright side, I must be close to approaching a generic global accent (albeit with an underlying hint of an Indian one).
I’m fascinated by this now as performance of speech recognition engines against various accents is one of the aspects I will be researching over the summer. Here’s my question, guys: when you talk to someone with a different accent, truthfully, how much of it do you get straight away and how much do you have to fill in through context? Do you find it ‘Western’ TV shows / films hard to follow? Specifically talking about the Kevin Bridges video embedded earlier in the post – could you understand it, and to what extent? Leave your response as a comment below. It’ll be a big help getting preliminary feedback on key problems on my research topic field.