14 May 2015 19:01 IST

Accent on the accent

Slow understandable speech is more important than an accent.

Using a neutral, easy to understand accent while speaking English can lead to better business communication. Of crucial importance is slower than normal, clearly-enunciated speech with correct grammar. This will lead to neutral accents in your business communication.
When immersed in a particular culture, temporarily adapt to its speech patterns. Using a neutral, easy to understand accent while speaking English can lead to better business communication. Of crucial importance is slower than normal, clearly-enunciated speech with correct grammar. This will lead to neutral accents in your business communication.
When immersed in a particular culture, temporarily adapt to its speech patterns.

The colour of your skin, the shape of your eyes, your hair and other physical characteristics are sure indicators of your racial and ethnic background. Looking for these clues to slot a person is one of those unconscious things we all do when meeting someone for the first time. Typecasting is a favourite human pastime!

But how often have you instantly revised your first opinion of a person’s background the minute he or she begins to speak? A South American accent from a seemingly all-American jock, a Malaysian accent from someone who looks like she is from Bandra; I even know of someone who boasts that he can judge how long a good Tamilian has been at universities in the US by just listening to him.

Accents, then, are either what we are born with or what we consciously or unconsciously acquire. As a professional, why would accents need to be an area of focus for you? Not because you need to sound US-returned or UK-returned, but because you need to be understood in business communication and also to be able to understand others. This works both ways — for Indians and other nationals. It is doubly trying when it is a conference call without the advantage of watching lip movements and facial expressions for additional clues.

The accent these days is on developing a neutral, easily understandable version of spoken English. One of my Scottish clients has two accents — he switches between a rich burr and a more standard British accent depending on who he is talking to.

The Indian version of a standard accent is one without the strong inflections and musical speech patterns of whatever your native tongue is. Many aspiring global Indians we have trained have had heaps of queries on the subject. I present some of the more common ones.

How easy is it to change my accent?

It depends on your motivation, flexibility and willingness to change, acknowledging that change as temporary and helpful to your professional success.

How long does it take?

About three to six months of sustained and intense practice, to change intonation and imitate another speed of speech. This involves being acutely conscious of your accent in real conversation and taking advantage of every opportunity to apply the tool learned. Imitating and taking on the inflection of the speaker makes him want to do business with you, as people like to work with those who are like them, or in this case, sound even a little like them..

Will I still be Indian?

You will never lose your Indian-ness as all you are trying to do is adapt to the speech patterns of whichever country you are interacting with, or develop a standard non-accented form of Indian English. It is more a case of slowing down your speech, pronouncing every syllable, enunciating clearly and dropping the usage of Indianisms like “It is this one only, no?” and changing it to “It is this one, isn’t it?”

Where do I start?

You have been studying English for a long time and need to get rid of old habits. Intonation, word patterns, word stress, all need to be relearned. You do this either through a course, books or tapes and then listening hard to real-life conversations.

Of course, TV, radio and films are great teachers which can be fun too. Focus on the way actors and newscasters speak rather than what they are saying. Write down the sound you hear, the way you hear it. Use another script or English to rewrite the sound. For example, ‘hotel’ is ho + tell with the stress on ‘tell’ not ‘ho’. Softening the ‘T’ and ‘D’ sound, differentiating ‘V’ and ‘W’ sounds, aspirating sounds ‘P, C, K, Q’, rolling the ‘R’ sound and sorting the confusion between ‘S’ and ‘Z’ sounds are all areas to pay special attention to.

Will others correct me when they hear my accent?

No, those who hear you will not correct you; only notice that you say things differently. So don’t rely on them. Instead, imitate the sounds they make. When you know a word is pronounced in a particular way locally, adapt to that pronunciation even if it doesn’t feel exactly right. Or even use an entirely different word that you would never do normally. For example, I advised my Italian client, using a BPO in India, to use ‘pre-pone’ (instead of advance) for a meeting. “It is logical for pre-pone to be the opposite of postpone, but I would never have thought of it,” he laughed, but it served his purpose right away.

Will people laugh at my put-on accent?

The native speaker for whose benefit you are putting it on will not find it funny, but it will seem so to Indians or other nationalities. If you use a French accent with your English, the Frenchman will think you are “speaking right”, but not the American or the Englishman. Accents can be put on and off to have the desired result. But do this only after many hours of practice.

Of crucial importance is to speak slower than you normally would, enunciate clearly and use correct grammar. This will lead to neutral accents in your business communication

I’ll leave you with two anecdotes worthy of Mind Your Language.

One American client reported: “‘Ten yay yem’, my finance assistant from South India would say when asked for the time. ‘Techno-lawgy’, my customer relations woman from Bihar would say no matter how many times I corrected her with technaw-logy.”

We all had a great laugh one day when we asked another American client to pronounce three words – ‘Mary, merry, marry’. He reeled them off, not realising that he was making them all sound exactly the same, while Indian colleagues pronounced each of those words in a distinctly different way!

Understand that every country has its own linguistic oddities.