Why do we Indians change our accent when abroad?

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The only way to make the Indian accent “cool” is to influence pop culture. And it’ll happen slowly, the more confidently we stick to our own way of speaking outside the Subcontinent.

The Indian accent has been portrayed in Hollywood as diligent and pacifist based on perceptions around the Indian stereotype. | Flickr/Istolethetv

Let’s be clear: the Indian accent isn’t cool. In fact, when we say words like “paint”, “pot” or “coolant”, it’s downright hilarious. We hit that “t” at the end of the word “bat” like a fat guy jumping into a swimming pool. It doesn’t matter that the “Indian accent” can vary; I would be surprised if any outside the Subcontinent can differentiate between a south-Indian and a north-Indian/Pakistani speaking English, never mind discern them from Apu in The Simpsons. The fact remains that certain accents — French, Italian, Spanish, British, Australian, etc. — are considered cool and/or sexy. The only time the Indian accent is sexy is when you hear it from your doctor or chartered accountant because you know you’re in good hands.

A couple of interesting things happen when Indians go abroad. First, we tone down the bumbling Indian-ness of our accents — especially when we speak to locals. Second, we switch back into our full-fledged Indian accent when we bump into fellow Indians. I hear Indian families, who have lived in the United States for 20+ years, speak differently to me than they do to their American colleagues on the phone. For some reason, many Indians see this as a reason to judge: they claim that having two accents makes us two-faced sell-outs. I think they’re wrong on a few counts.

 

 

Indians are not the only ones who change our accent when we go abroad. Anyone who lives abroad — especially English-speakers who move to other English-speaking countries — for any period of time will subconsciously change their accent. It’s a natural process of integration — of imitation. I know plenty of American and European expats in Bombay, who have been told how “Indian” they now sound by their friends back home. Brits and Aussies sound different after they’ve lived in America for a few years. Indians are in a unique position in this sense because many of us speak English to each other, even though we could just as easily speak in Hindi or other regional languages.

Think about how few other countries do this. When two French or Mexican students speak to each other outside their home country, they speak in French or Spanish. Indians meeting each other outside India generally speak in English — but now with a more pronounced Indian accent — before switching to a vernacular if they’re from the same place. I have lived outside India most of my life and I physically cannot talk in my Bombay accent when I’m outside India except to other Indians; I employ a weird Indo-Brit-American hybrid that sounds, frankly, ridiculous. Likewise, I’d feel like a fool talking in my “hybrid” accent to other Indians — that’s when I’d actually feel like a sell-out. If an Indian person has grown up in the U.S. and comes back to India, it’s not fair to make fun of their accent. If a friend who goes on a 2-week euro-trip comes back speaking like Shashi Tharoor, that’s another matter.

 

Bollywood could start making movies that the rest of the world actually watches. The world would see young actors speaking in English who don’t look, sound or act like Apu.

 

Could there ever be a time where we Indians begin to feel so comfortable with our accent that we just keep speaking English the way we would naturally? Maybe. I would argue this will happen if the Indian accent someday becomes “cool”. So, what makes an accent cool? I would say it’s a combination of the perceived ‘power’ of the nation and the romance of its language. When Americans say they find the English accent sexy, they mean they find the middle-class London accent sexy — not Brummie, the brain-dead Birmingham drawl, or Scouse, the indecipherable Liverpudlian scowl.

 

 

The posh, white London accent implies knowledge and sophistication, probably down to America’s colonial subjugation by Britain and BBC period costume dramas. I remember my German friends being thoroughly enthralled by any Latin American accent, because it signified exotic romance – sultry nights of dance and lust far removed to tepid northern Europe. The Russian accent implies toughness thanks to James Bond villains while the Australian accent implies carefree fun because the Australians you seem to see on TV are athletes and bar-tenders. The perceptions of accents are built by countries’ pop-culture stereotypes and historical relationships.

 

 

What will it take to make the Indian accent cool? A change in the pop-culture stereotype of Indians. The South-Asian Americans who are currently outraging over Apu from The Simpsons — angry enough that they’re making an entire documentary about it — don’t actually talk in South-Asian accents. They talk in crisp, respectable American accents. Even Dev Patel’s Indian accent in Slumdog Millionaire felt jarring. To me, the actual Indian accent generally implies diligence and pacifism. How might this change? And is that something we should strive for? Priyanka Chopra and Vir Das now regularly appear on American TV, talking in Indian accents; this is the first step.

Bollywood could start making movies that the rest of the world actually watches. The world would see young actors speaking in English who don’t look, sound or act like Apu. If India played more global sports — if Virat Kohli was the world’s best footballer instead of its best batsman — the world would see a new type of Indian face and hear a new kind of Indian voice. I hate to keep going back to Mr. Tharoor — he does strike me the best current cultural emissary for Indian thought — but in his recent global book tour, he probably put a new voice to ‘what Indians can sound like’.

 

 

I’m fascinated by accents and what they reveal about us. They can help us determine where someone comes from, where they’ve been educated and perhaps even how they think. Just as our clothing and appearances send signals about who we are, our accents also allow us to sometimes place someone’s background and perhaps figure out how to befriend them. Our accents reflect our upbringing and how we want to be viewed. Ultimately, the Indian accent alone will not change the world’s perceptions of Indians. It is down to us to improve our country and propagate its culture — actions do speak louder than words.

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