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An accent on English

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on January 26, 2012 No Comment

My father recently recounted an anecdote from his post-graduate years at the University of Moscow in the mid-1960s. He and his friend-we’ll call him Dr. Ramanna-were chatting amongst themselves on a cold, wintry day, surrounded by a slew of Russian colleagues. One Russian gentleman seated nearby inquired: What languages were they speaking in? My father responded, a little taken aback, that they were speaking in English, since my father’s first language is Bengali, and Dr. Ramanna’s first language was Telegu and they did not have any other common language between them. The Russian gentleman shook his head incredulously and commented that it sounded as if there were speaking in two different languages! The Bengali and Telegu of their linguistic inheritance, thus, transformed their English into sounding like it belonged to two different tongues. The story elucidates something that generally receives too little attention in claims made about spoken English within the country: that it is often distinctly colored and shaded depending on the regional markings it carries within itself. “Indian English” is not a uniform, monolithic entity, but a lively, colorful, shape-shifting version that acquires a distinct character as it moves fluidly differentially across different linguistic spaces.


As an international graduate student in North America, I’ve faced questions over the issue of my own accent. In my first week as a graduate student, some twelve years ago, in a small town in northern Ontario, Canada, I went to the local bank to open a checking account. The bank manager refused to believe that I had just arrived from India, and appeared suspicious, because, as she said, I spoke English “like them,” and it wasn’t possible that I had “just” arrived. She did not relent until I showed her my passport and entry papers, with the arrival date clearly marked. It was obvious that she had anticipated “broken” English and a thick accent, because that’s just how Indians (as a lot) are expected to speak, as some (if not many) imagine. I defensively launched into a narrative of how I’d also lived in the US.for a couple of years between the ages of nine and eleven, and that seemed to make my story more “palatable.” Though I haven’t experienced quite that level of skepticism again, I have encountered folks who remarked that I spoke English well “for an Indian.” It’s never easy to figure out how to respond to such a statement. A “thank you” seems highly inappropriate. English is not quite as foreign to Indians as some would have us believe (neither, on the other hand, I’d contend, is it quite as much “ours” as others have previously claimed).

Within India, the story is different, but not always less painful to negotiate. During our vacation in India this summer, my (American) husband and I met with a north Indian educator in a UP village, with whom I have collaborated professionally over the past several years. After we exchanged pleasantries in Hindi, I introduced him to my husband. In somewhat timid English, he asked my husband: “Do you like India?” My husband responded: “I love India!” That very instant, the educator turned to me and said in Hindi: “Your English is ok, it’s good, but-they speak differently, his English is better.” It took all of three words-and most crucially, an American tongue (and, possibly fair skin)-for him to determine that my capabilities in English were inferior to my husband’s. It’s instructive-and sad-that how we speak a language sometimes frames us in ways that even our own words can’t.

Republished with permission from the Times of India (Click here for the original article).

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