“I can’t understand your accent.”
It’s easy to imagine someone from Detroit, Berkshire, or Melbourne saying that when talking to an Indian counterpart. But could you imagine this coming from an Indian talking about you?
Probably not in that direct of a sentence (it would sound too offensive), but they would tell their friends as they are walking out of the teleconference, “I can’t understand anything he says – it’s impossible!”
Communication is a two-way street, and it is important that you are pulling your weight when it comes to being understandable.
Here are a few things to remember as we start:
- Most Indians speak, at minimum, three languages. They can sit through a Hindi movie on Saturday evening, go home and watch an English movie on TV, then get up and go watch a Telugu (or other regional language) film the next day. So, we are talking about some pretty linguistically intelligent people.
- That said, English is not likely their first language, or the one in which they can express themselves the best. Especially if you are mono-linguistic, you should be pretty empathetic towards people who are less comfortable with English.
- As much as you’d like to believe it, there is no such thing as “accentless” or “normal” English. Each dialect has its own accent and idioms that others find hard to follow. There is no “normal”. Everyone has to accommodate for everyone else.
There are four easy ways you can dramatically increase your ability to be understood when communicating with India.
1. Speak up and Slow Down
By far, the most common reasons Indians won’t understand you is that you speak too fast or too softly.
Most spoken English follows a pattern of peaks and valleys. We choose one or two words in a sentence (peaks) and say them louder and slower. The other words in the sentence (the valleys) are often run together and spoken very quickly and quietly.
For example, say this sentence as naturally as possible:
We have a lot of things to do this week before we are going to be able to look at the report you gave.
Most people will unconsciously choose the work “report” as the peak of the sentence. The problem is that there are 21 words that come before “report” that you will likely say quickly and softly.
Most other languages are not structured in this peak and valley format, so they will get lost when you speak very quickly and then slow down and accent one word.
How you can help:
- Notice when you tend to speak quickly (giving directions, getting emotional, feeling impatient).
- Consciously try to slow down during that time.
- Put more breaks in your speech.
- Put more space in between words, especially small words that tend to sound like one long word (buforweergonnabeabultulukat).
2. Don’t be wordy
Even better than slowing down, you can reduce your sentence size. The above sentence would be much better said, “We need to delay looking at your report until we finish some existing work.”
There are many overused phrases like “will be able to”, “Do you think you could perhaps”, and “I think that what we might need to do is”. We tend to add these phrases in because we are trying to be polite, but they really add no meaning to the sentence.
If English is the only language you speak, you may not be aware that other languages have a formal and informal tense. This means you use one word when speaking politely to your boss and another word when speaking casually to a friend at lunch. The way we show formality in English is to add extra words.
For example, if your brother came into the room, you might say, “Have a seat.”
If the president of the country came in, you would say, “Thank you so much for coming today. We are very honored that you are here. Would you please have a seat over here by the table?”
This demonstrates our unconscious need to add more words in order to be more polite. However, when speaking to someone who isn’t as familiar with English, this only makes it harder to understand what you are really saying.
How you can help:
- Speak in short sentences, and put breaks in between sentences.
- Show formality and politeness with body language rather than words.
Again, there is no “accentless English”. I’ve listed below a few common areas where English and most Indian languages differ the most. These tips are also good to follow if you are trying to say words in an Indian language.
Please note: you should never try to speak in an Indian accent. You could come across as either patronizing or idiotic. These tips are just some ways you can alter your own natural speech to be more understandable.
P, T, K (Aspirants)
Most native English speakers do what is called “aspirating” on the sounds /p/, /t/, and /k/. Aspirating means you blow out a little puff of air when the word starts with this sound. If you put a small piece of paper up to your mouth and say the word “pair”, the paper will move suddenly.
Most Indian languages do not use any aspirants. If they said the same word in their Indian accent, the paper would not move. This makes the /p/ sound very much like our /b/. “Pair” and “bear” can be hard to distinguish when there is no aspiration.
If we feel a certain word is not being understood, we will put more aspiration on a sound. No, the first digit it two! Tu, tu, two. Putting extra stress on your “spit” like this is meaningless, annoying, and rather unpleasant.
When you say a word that starts with /t/ or /d/, like “tail”, your tongue probably touches near the top of the back side of your teeth. Most Indian languages naturally place the tongue higher up the roof of the mouth for these sounds.
Don’t worry about changing too much, but if you notice a word like “day” being misunderstood, slightly moving your tongue back can create some more clarity.
This one is for the Americans. Most of us say “little” or “butter” with a /d/ sound in the middle. In fact, nearly every place there is a “t” in the middle of a word, we substitute a /d/.
This is weird.
A great way to increase your ability to be understood is to use the /t/ sound when it is in the middle of the word.
/a/ vs /æ/
Lastly, there is one particular vowel sound that is used mostly in American English, but is uncommon especially in India. It is the /æ/ sound of the word “pack”. Actually, quite an unpleasant sound when you say it on its own.
In British English, this sound is often replaced with the /a/ sound. That it is the difference between fast (like “pack”) and fast (like “lock”).
You don’t need to change this sound every time, but minimally you should change how you say a word like Pakistan. The initial sound should be /a/ (like lock) and not /æ/ like (like pack).
How you can help:
- Lighten up on “puffing” your p’s, t’s, and k’s
- Use a /t/ sound instead of a /d/ in the middle of a word
- Opt for the /a/ sound instead of the /æ/ when appropriate
4. Indianisms and Idioms
Take a look at the expanded Indian English Dictionary. This list can help you interpret what an Indian means when they say they want to offer you a “biscuit”. However, you can also start using some of the words in an appropriate context. For example, it would be fine for you to start talking about a “batch” of trainees, not a “group”. However, calling someone a “Guju” would be inappropriate for you.
Similarly, there is likely a large list of phrases you use in your home culture that make little to no sense to Indians. Be careful when you use idioms, metaphors, and analogies as these don’t translate very well.
Here is a list of commonly misunderstood idioms English speakers might use. Much of this list came from Craig Storti’s Speaking of India. Most of the sports idioms are from baseball, but we use many from all major sports.
- It’s up in the air
- We’ll just have to wing it
- That’s a piece of cake
- They’re getting cold feet
- We’re out on a limb
- That’s a real can of worms
- He doesn’t have a prayer
- She’s under the weather
- They bit off more than they can chew
- No sweat
- That will never fly
- Give me a ballpark figure
- It’s a whole new ballgame
- We struck out
- That was a close call
- He’s out in left field
- He hit it out of the park
- That was a home run
- You’ll never get to first base with that idea
- They threw us a curve ball
How you can help:
- Use the Indian phrase when it is appropriate
- Listen to your own speech for all the idioms you use
- Find a more straightforward way to say the same thing
Being understandable in communication is a two-way street. If you communicate a lot with India, you owe it to your project and your colleagues to do your part in making sure the message you intended gets across to the other person. Start small and work on slowing down your speech and speaking in shorter sentences.
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Image Credit: Vinamra Agarwal on Flickr