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Accents are for the birds

There is no person alive who does not have an accent. The way you speak a language, say English, is heavily influenced by your first language if it is different from English. It is also influenced by where you come from, the level of education you have had, the social or economic class from which you spring, and even possibly the ethnic group to which you belong. We all have accents.

  MANISH NANDY   | New Delhi |

I have an accent.

So do Brad Pitt and Queen Elizabeth. And so did Laurence Olivier and Walter Cronkite.

There is no person alive who does not have an accent. The way you speak a language, say English, is heavily influenced by your first language if it is different from English. It is also influenced by where you come from, the level of education you have had, the social or economic class from which you spring, and even possibly the ethnic group to which you belong. We all have accents.

When people speak of a person having an accent, they mean, pejoratively, that the person has a non-standard way of speaking a language, whatever the standard is in their mind or that of their audience. Clearly, the standard varies sharply. Sir Laurence, who made a great deal of money by bringing his histrionic talent to the other side of the Pacific, did not at all sound like his Queen. The avuncular newscaster Cronkite, so beloved of Americans, read his daily bulletin in tones very different from Brad Pitt’s.

Yet ridicule is poured on the Tamil Indian who has come to work on a network system in Alabama on an H1B visa or the Salvadoreño who has crossed the border from Mexico questing for cleaning jobs in a New Jersey suburb. Even more ridiculous is the superior air with which a person, who has spent some time in Bristol or Boston, looks down on the average denizen of Manila or Mumbai.

During a short break in a meeting in downtown Washington, I sidestepped into a delicatessen to order a quick sandwich. Before even the Korean server asked, I told her the type of bread, meat and condiments I wanted. She didn’t follow. When I repeated my choices, slowly and clearly, she still did not grasp. I said, “Just make a good sandwich and give it to me, please.”

When I sat down to eat, I had a momentary flash of annoyance that a person, whose work is to fashion a sandwich from the ingredients in front of her, should have so much trouble following a simple order. Then I realized that, in a country where live 5o million people for whom English is a second language, and in a city where the foreign-born outnumber the native-born 7 to 1, it was I, the customer, who should learn to cope with the limited linguistic skill of a low-wage server.

It is well-known that in the US people are discriminated against, in recruitment or in the assessment of their work, if they seem to speak with an unfamiliar accent. Routinely, new immigrants are treated unfairly the moment they open their mouths, even if their looks had misleadingly suggested a native. Even in jobs where the spoken language is not important, a prejudice against the non-native person masquerades as a bias against the non-native accent.

When I grew up in colonial India, I could understand – though not accept – the parochial preference of British rulers and their lackeys for a certain accent, but, agonizingly, it continued long after the British were ejected from the Indian shores. The tradition has continued. The extraordinary pains some seem to take to cultivate an expatriate accent belies the slipshod standard of their vocabulary and grammar. Accents are a poor predictor of language proficiency, as much as the size of one’s head, which once riveted the bogus science of phrenology, is a pathetic indicator of a person’s intelligence.

Of course, we want to be understood when we speak. Our intonation of words must bear a reasonable semblance to the expected sound of the words. This has become easier thanks to the internet. You can click on any word in a dictionary and hear the right sound, and you can do so in any major language. But to strive for the correct pronunciation is a far cry from the inane attempt to ape the ‘correct’ accent. I learned Asian languages before I left India: Bengali, Sanskrit, Pali and Hindi. Those gave me a broad range of phonetics when I went on to learn French and Spanish, while I saw my American colleagues struggle mightily with the softer sounds of d and t. I feel a curious thrill when I am mistaken for a Hispanic when I converse in Spanish.

I learned English in India, including some mispronunciations, but never made the slightest attempt to speak like my English colleagues. Later, I was equally loath to pick up the midwestern accent most current in the US. My effort was, as ever in every language, to learn it well, use it with elegance and precision. That effort has not ended. It never will. I admire Conrad, Nabokov and Rushdie, for none of whom English was the first language, but I try to write in my own way, battling to find my own idiom.

Getting some preferred accent I believe to be a fool’s errand unless one works in a call centre or aspires to an elevated social status. I have no desire to seem superior to anybody else. A large part of my work involved making presentations to groups, big and small, and I never experienced blank looks. Nobody complained that I was unintelligible; rather, some complimented me on my clarity. That to me was more important than being noted for an Oxbridge accent or taken for a Boston brahmin.

The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])