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“How come you don’t have an accent in Hindi?”

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Just as my English has a “chameleon” quality (see “Can you drop the Indian accent?”), I’m often asked “How come you don’t have an accent in Hindi?”

I've got Hindi, what about you? (Photo: www.tattoodonkey.com)

I’ve got Hindi, what about you? (Photo: http://www.tattoodonkey.com)

Usually I explain that I have lived in India for more than a decade, studied Hindi in Delhi for a year augmented mid-way by a very helpful 6-week stint at the Landour Language School (near Mussourie).

What follows is generally “Aaah! That explains it!” type response. Because the ‘real’ Hindi is naturally from North India!

Yet I’m aware that my vocabulary has shifted between what is typically heard in Delhi to ‘Mumbaya’ words. And has deteriorated abysmally as my universe in Bombay is almost exclusively English.

When I lived in Delhi (1995-96, 2003-05) there were multiple daily opportunities to speak Hindi or at least ‘Hinglish‘ – in which one switches effortlessly between English, Hindi, blending words from each language. Today, I’m honest enough to know that when folks complement my Hindi, they are being terribly kind – even I can hear how badly I mess up!

However I have a few perspectives on this… and wonder if anyone else agrees?

The accent ‘trick’ – get as close as you can!

The trick. I think, is the accent – which DOES make a significant difference to effective communication. Even with poor grammar and limited vocabulary, if at least part of what is said SOUNDS close to the correct ‘accent’ (ie a tiny bit closer to how the words are pronounced by a native speaker), the results are pretty good!

However, if the pronunciation is ‘off’ or not quite right, quizzical looks and frustration is more apt to be the response even if the grammar and vocabulary is technically correct. A German friend is Professor of Hindi and, naturally, completely fluent in Hindi. And yet, her strong German ‘accent’ in Hindi sometimes ‘interferes’ with comprehension. Occasionally, it takes me a few seconds for the synapses to go “Got it! That’s what she just said!”

This is compounded in some languages where intonation is everything and radically changes the meaning – often with hilarious or highly embarrassing mistakes!

The ‘Accent Express’ transporting one ‘home‘ and ‘away

For me, accents are a reflection of the variety and richness of a language with a window into a particular culture. The different nuance or flavour that comes with the accent of a particular part of the world or community brings a wealth of insight, triggers memories and more. When I speak with anyone from the Canadian prairies, I’m instantly transported to the ‘home’ of my birth. Similarly, as I meet people from a place I’ve spent time, their accent is a miniature plane / train / car trip to both the place and memories of it.

In a recent interview in Jakarta, one candidate mentioned how he lived in France as a child. When he wanted to back to school to get another degree, did so in French. He joked “My French accent is better than my English.” And honestly, in my humble opinion he was 100% correct. I could ‘hear’ Paris when he spoke French. As for his English…. not exactly fluent. However who am I to judge with only 2 – 3 words of Bahasa!?

Eiffel Tower (OfficeClipArt)

“Oui?” Paris in Jakarta… (OfficeClipArt)

Fe… Fi… Fo.. Fum… Faking French

With French, I rarely get an opportunity to practice these days. And, in Asia, it is most likely to be someone from France. Having studied in Cannes long ago, there was a time I could attempt (fake?) that accent. However, I must confess, I spent more time that spring enjoying the free passes to the Cannes International Film Festival than truly mastering French!

Today, my paltry French has rather garbled grammar and atrocious vocabulary as Hindi words keep popping into my head where French used to reside. Who knows what my French ‘accent’ is these days!?

Which is what made our July trip to Canada so delightful! In the ‘Green Room’ at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, several of the musicians were from Quebec. Ahhhh…. It was music to my ears and brought back a flood of memories from living in Montreal!

Yet while I could understand most of what was said and rejoiced in the familiar sounds of Quebec French, found it a more than a bit challenging to slip back into a Quebecois accent. Yup! Gotta admit, just too rusty to do justice.

Even if I can’t fake French anymore, will leave you with a taste of my favourite francophones from the festival – d’Harmo – a quartet of mad, fun, guys playing harmonium…

PS This post was prompted by a friend’s post “My Mandarin Accent” sharing her Taiwanese influenced beginnings replaced by Shanghai sounds and words. And how she was reminded of the distinction during a recent trip to Taiwan.

Comments and counter-arguments welcome!

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  1. englishwhiz says:

    “The trick I think is that accent DOES make a significant difference to effectively communicating.” I agree with you completely on this one. Recently, I was listening to someone talk in English, and it was extremely hard to focus on what the person was saying just because he had an overwhelming Oriya accent to his English. He had good grammar and very good vocabulary but oh! the accent!

    Also, thank you for visiting my blog. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts. You’d be bringing a completely different perspective.

  2. Expat Eye says:

    The pronunciation thing is so true! Even though I know the word in Latvian, if I say it even 1% incorrectly, it’s quizzical looks all round! Then I write it down and they go ‘ahhhhh’ you mean … That’s what I said!! I had a nightmare the other night trying to remember some of my Spanish – first the Latvian word would pop into my head, then the French one… 🙂 It was a ‘muy lente’ conversation!!

  3. Ah, one of my favourite topics 🙂
    One of my biggest gripes with my Spanish is that I still can’t roll/trill my Rs. I keep practicing in the shower, but to no avail.
    I do agree that pronunciation is important and worth spending time on. I focus on that with my Spanish intercambios. Spanish speakers are notoriously difficult to understand when they speak English, because they just can’t manage the diphthongs very well. I’m used to the accent now, and I usually understand by context even if the accent is very strong, but if they just gave me single words, I’d have no clue what they were meaning to say.
    It’s all good fun, though!

    • Perhaps its time to get out of the shower…? Ethpeshuly if in Valenthia? (OK I’m probably gonna get crucified for that crack!)

      In my early days learning Hindi there were the most hilarious ‘practice’ sessions in the late hours (sometimes wee hours) around the kitchen table with friends / family (often liberally lubricated I might add) in Delhi.

      I was living with a friend’s family and they were valiantly trying to teach English to their Bengali cook / man about the house… anyone who speaks Bengali knows the S is Sh so Somnath is Shomnath and so forth. As he was being grilled on his pronunciation and constantly corrected, I was treated to similar attention to particularly my Rs and Ds!

      There were some mad moments but clearly worked as I can do some passable Rs, Ds and their variants!

  4. gkm2011 says:

    Thanks for the shout out! I can also relate to Expat Eye’s comment – when I try to think in Spanish now – it just doesn’t come out, but I can eavesdrop which is the fun part.
    One thing you didn’t mention – I think people with a musical background can pick up and switch accents more easily than those who are tone deaf. Just an observation.

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