Sunday, December 08, 2013

Indian English

India was a British colony for many centuries.  The British spoke English, and India inherited British English.  From being the sign of an elite education and a higher pedigree, it has now become the de-facto language of higher education in India.

In the past, learning English was a tall order for the vast majority of Indians.  Knowing a second language (especially in the written form) requires education and training.  For a long time, and some would argue even now, the Indian education system has been hopelessly inadequate in teaching even the local language and basic arithmetic, never mind a second language.  Many leftist educationists advocate development of the local language, arguing that it is well-nigh impossible to teach people science and arithmetic in an alien language.  They point to the fact that many developing countries (the prime examples being Japan and China) have been successful at human development only by encouraging education in the native language.

Moreover, many regions in India look at the teaching of their local language as a matter of pride and the teaching of any other language as an attack on the local culture.  Also, India has dozens of languages and hundreds, if not thousands, of dialects.  Making available good quality teaching materials in local languages is not easy.  It is also not hard to see the lack of geographic mobility of a person who knows only the local language.  Many great educational institutes in India are managed by the central government, and they teach in English.  A person educated in his/her native language is usually incapable of succeeding at these institutes.


But what about Indians who do manage to learn English and speak it?  Many books have been written about the way Indians use the English language.  This is an enjoyable read, albeit one which is mostly critical of Indian English.

I think there are at least three distinct ways in which Indian English can be distinguished: the way we use phrases and idioms, our pronunciation, and our accent.

We use unique phrases and idioms ("pass out of college", "reverting back with more information", "prepone").  Not all of these are wrong.  Some are just archaic or unique.

Our pronunciation is either heavily British ("faast instead of faest", "shedule instead of skedule"), or sometimes just incorrect.  That is because we do not know how to pronounce some uncommon words, and English being a second language, we use common sense which in many cases does not apply to this complex language.

For example, most Indians that I know of pronounce the word "photography" by extending from how they pronounce the word "photograph".  Similarly, I always thought the word "hyperbole" was pronounced as "hyper-bolay" (and not "hy-perbolee" as specified by the dictionary).  I never heard anyone speak hyperbole correctly in India, otherwise I would have at least checked.  Similarly the words: gravel (pronounced correctly as gra (as in grand) vel (as in mull)), vinyl (pronounced correctly as vynal and not veenile), awry (a-wry and not aw-ry) are pronounced differently than what would naturally occur to an Indian.

And as is well-known, we have difficulty knowing the difference between pronouncing the v as in "verbose" and the w as in "woman".

Coming to our accent, it is identifiable enough to be parodied by stand-up-comedians and in humorous TV shows.

English being a world language does not have a single authoritative variant.  The words, accents, and sometimes even the pronunciation of common words differ across English-speaking regions.  Americans say "God" as gawd or even sometimes as "guy-ed", "you got it" as "you gaat it".  Australians pronounce "basin" as "bison" ("wash-bison").  And so on.

However, the people in English-speaking regions speak English as their first language and even though they may have a unique way of speaking it, they regard it as a valid way.  People who speak English as their second language continuously second-guess and have to keep learning how to speak it naturally and effortlessly.

Language has a bearing on trust, respect and relationships.  In business and public-relations, if you speak the local language in an alien manner, you have a more difficult task of winning over your listener.  There is an implicit distrust of anything strange-sounding.  And sometimes a foreign accent is just hard to understand.  An Indian or Chinese who wishes to be a leader in an English speaking country cannot afford to speak in their native accent.  If the role involves talking to people at all levels and when the role involves building trust and consensus, this is just bad strategy.

Also, I cannot help but mention that countries who speak English as their first language are ruled by White people.  Therefore, an Australian accent is going to be more acceptable (at a race kinship level) than a Chinese or an Indian accent.

People associate races and regions and accents with stereotypes.  To a foreign listener, an Indian accent quickly triggers notions of poverty, lack of hygiene, visa-fraud, corruption, IT grunt-work, call centers, mysticism, curries, ill-fitting clothes, introvert nerd geniuses, etc.  An Indian who wishes to overcome this stereotype has little choice but to not sound like an FOB ("fresh-off-the-boat").

There is nothing strange about wanting to "fit in".  Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born faux-PM of India, tries to speak Hindi as an Indian in order to sway people.  If she spoke Hindi as the venerable Tom Alter, I am not sure she would win any fans.

But I do think it is possible for Indian English to gain a wider recognition.  As Indians are achieving more and more success in the global arena, and as we are making strides in our education and human development, the way we speak English must, and will, slowly find greater recognition.  The stereotype of the poor Indian will probably take many centuries to go away, because that has complex causes.  And coupled with a greater recognition of Indian English, Indians must also try harder at learning to speak English not in an archaic or in an obviously wrong way.

This middle ground, where we recognize our failings in pronunciation and phraseology, and where there is more global acceptance of the Indian accent and intonation, would certainly be a happy place to be.


Birla said...

My biggest surprise has been the pronunciation of, ironically, England; Not like ing-land but eng-lend.

Sriram Naganathan said...

One small correction. India was not Britain's colony for many centuries. If you take Battle of Plassey (1757) to independence, it was 190 years. That is all. Of these, English really came in only around 1835, with Macaulay Minute. Just a bit more than a century.

Sriram Naganathan said...

One small correction. India was not Britain's colony for many centuries. If you take Battle of Plassey (1757) to independence, it was 190 years. That is all. Of these, English really came in only around 1835, with Macaulay Minute. Just a bit more than a century.