Indian English Speakers with Shifting Western Accent
August 22, 2009 10:04 AM   Subscribe

Is it a widespread behavior for multilingual speakers of english to get a more anglicized accent when talking to a native speaker?

I don't mean just common code-switching (someone getting a drawl in Kansas, or someone going 'you understand' vs. 'you feel me' in different contexts.) But people going from like, Indian english to completely westernized english (in accents, not necessarily in diction or dialect) without making a conscious decision to do so. This is besides people 'faking' an accent because of class issues related to these things.
posted by Non Prosequitur to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't mean just common code-switching (someone getting a drawl in Kansas, or someone going 'you understand' vs. 'you feel me' in different contexts.) But people going from like, Indian english to completely westernized english (in accents, not necessarily in diction or dialect) without making a conscious decision to do so.

Can you clarify the distinction you're making here? I don't think I see the difference between "British accent in England, drawl in Kansas" and "British accent in England, Indian accent in India." Both times you're looking at someone shifting their pronunciation to mirror the pronunciation of the people they're talking with.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:31 AM on August 22, 2009

I think I understand what you are asking. I have come across a people who aren't speakers of English as a first language who leanr English at home then when they move to a native English speaking countyr adopt the local dialect. A good example would be some soccer players in England, and you might be able to dig up some video files to get examples of these. A specific example that comes to mind is the 1980s Denmark and Liverpool player Jan Molby, who began to speak English with a Liverpudlian accent overlayed on his Danish accent after a few years in the city. Others may be able to come up with some more recent examples.

I have personally come across 2 Finnish academics who developed who developed Canadian and Californian accents on top of their Finnish-English accents after spending relatively short periods of time in those locations.
posted by biffa at 10:56 AM on August 22, 2009

I don't see how a Kansas drawl is any different from an Indian English accent, but I have an Indian friend who speaks with a Standard American English accent with her friends, but automatically (and subconsciously) switches to an Indian English accent when speaking with her parents. I think it's awesome, if a bit funny.

My roommate does the same sort of thing when speaking with his family in Kentucky, btw.

Also, I thought "code switching" referred to mixing words from different languages together when you speak them both natively, not whatever you're referring to.
posted by losvedir at 11:13 AM on August 22, 2009

Response by poster: I mean much quicker changes than being physically in England vs. Kansas though; I mean pick up the phone and your whole accent changes. I think of it as different from a drawl because the qualitative difference is huge. It just strikes me as really freaky, almost fake, when my family members do it but of course I do it too. I think it's also partly because speaking the westernized accent in the india itself makes you much harder to understand so maybe it's just a practical thing. There's heavy cultural issues relating to accent here (think of it like skin colour) so that just makes it noticeable when someone just jumps a valence like that. There's also levels in between where someone's like 'completely local accented english -> semi-western -> western native speaker'.
posted by Non Prosequitur at 11:13 AM on August 22, 2009

I know many people who try to fake the local accent but sometimes they just over do it and I so hate that. Many people do it unintentionally.

As nebulawindphone said, people do it to mirror the pronunciation of the people they are talking to. Its sort of weakens, if not breaks, the accent barrier preventing people in understanding others with a different accent.

People tend to have different ways to address this. Some try to speak in a different accent, some try to speak slowly with gaps between the words, etc.
posted by bbyboi at 11:18 AM on August 22, 2009

Sure it's very common. I have a friend who grew up in India, the UK and and at an American school in the Middle East and can switch between an Indian English accent, a British one and an American one seamlessly. I used to make fun of her for it when I knew here back home in India, but since coming to the US I have found myself speaking in a more "Indian" way when talking to my parents vs. my professors or friends here. This is not conscious at all, I just seem to want to speak in a way that the other person will be comfortable with.
posted by peacheater at 11:36 AM on August 22, 2009

I do this without even trying. In fact, I do it while trying not to. It's not instantaneous, but when I used to spend all day on conference calls with people in the states, I would pick up their accent within an hour or two. Similarly, I picked up our Irish tour guide's accent while on a bus tour in Europe, and my best friend's Chicago accent while an exchange student in Brazil.

Whoever has the strongest accent wins -- there could be 10 Canadians and one American on a call, and by the end of it, I'd be saying 'Say hi to eryone in Endicaaaaaaat fer me.'
posted by jacquilynne at 11:38 AM on August 22, 2009

In college I had a friend whose family came from Taiwan but he grew up in LA since he was a toddler. We were all in Boston at the time, but when his mom called, he would switch to this Mandarin/English combo thing with her, have heavily inflected English when talking to other family members that spoke more than his mother, and then after any given phone call it would take the rest of the day for his accent to snap back to lightly boston tinged american english, going through a series of changes from the weird pigeon-mandarin to this chinese-inflected pitch shifting thing, through a heavy mid 90s LA accent to a mainstream west coast attitude to his sentence structure and eventually, a few hours later, he might say he had to pahk the cah ovah by hahvahd. I didn't think he knew he was doing it, honestly, until one day when the Red Sox won the world series and he was all "Shut up, I can't talk Boston now, I just called Mom!" Man, I miss that kid.

Storytime, over.
posted by Mizu at 11:45 AM on August 22, 2009

Not Indian, but I do that, most of the time without realizing it. I have a strong Canadian accent (so I've been told), but my mother is from the US south and has a southern accent. When I talk to her on the phone, my friends have commented that I "get an accent."

It's often difficult to realize your accent is changing, though. I lived in the UK for a bit, and it sounded as if, to me, my accent because more American. Living in a place where my accent marked me as obviously foreign really made me conscious of how I sounded. But when I moved back to Canada, people thought I was from Britain -- my accent had become more English without my realizing it.
posted by canadia at 11:51 AM on August 22, 2009

The French presenter on the video podcast "Walk, Talk and Learn French" speaks English with an amazing hybrid French/Scottish accent. Fantastic.

Example on YouTube
posted by djgh at 12:00 PM on August 22, 2009 [6 favorites]

Having lived abroad for over ten years (in a non-english speaking country), my accent has become very flat. You can hear I am Irish if you know how Irish people sound, but otherwise I speak a quite anonymous english. However, as soon as I get in a taxi from the airport in Dublin I am once again unintelligible to non Dubs.

My swedish mrs, when I met her, spoke english with a wonderful colonial Brittish accent from having lived in Africa for a number of years. I have since destroyed that and she speaks with a slight Dublin accent now. Unless that is, she is speaking to englishmen, then it's all "I say old chap!" within minutes. Perhaps a little more like what you mean? I know a lot of people here have very flexible english accents as they may have, for example, learned english from a teacher with a brittish accent, but then lived in the states for a few years, or australia or what have you. I worked with a huge country-boy who spoke like James Bond.
posted by Iteki at 12:01 PM on August 22, 2009

djgh: Oh my goodness that is glorious. I'm learning French from this man and this man only.
posted by Mizu at 12:22 PM on August 22, 2009

That French guy is so cute! Thanks for linking that.

I was confused by the question at first too but now that the poster has clarified I just wanted to add...
I mean much quicker changes than being physically in England vs. Kansas though; I mean pick up the phone and your whole accent changes.
There is a similar phenomenon among, for instance, German "Platt" speakers (that is, regional dialects). They often speak both "Hochdeutsch" and their local dialect and jump between the two at will, depending on whether they're speaking to locals or to people from other regions.

I've noticed both the immediate effect (Berlin friend speaks to someone from Berlin, which makes her switch to Berlinerisch), or the "linger on" effect akin to what canadia said upthread - if Berlin friend has been home for a while she sounds more Berlinerisch, which fades after a few days.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 12:39 PM on August 22, 2009

It's still codeswitching, even if you're doing it quickly. In fact, I'd say it's codeswitching especially if you're doing it quickly, as what you are describing is actually switching codes back and forth. I do this all the time. I speak to my neighbors in Harlem differently than I speak with my coworkers in Madison Square and I speak differently to my coworkers than I do to my mother in Alabama.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:34 PM on August 22, 2009

Yeah, I've got a friend of Pakistani origin. When he's speaking to me, he sounds like he was raised in the USA. When he's speaking to his parents, he's got a subcontinent accent (can't exactly say Indian accent). When we're all in the room, he shifts back and forth, but there's often a few words-worth of lag.

I'm a native speaker of English, living in a different part of the country than the one I was raised in. When I'm on the phone to my parents, I can hear my original accent coming through.
posted by adamrice at 1:50 PM on August 22, 2009

This is a very common phenomenon. I have quite a few international friends, and when they speak with each other (whenever they speak English and not their native tongue), they have a different way of talking than when they speak with everyone else.

I'm a native English speaker, but I've lived in eight different states all over the United States, and even I switch the way I speak depending on who I'm talking to. Right now, I have a slight Southern accent because I've been in the South too long, but if I'm talking to someone from another part of the states or overseas then my neutral "California" accent comes back.

I once thought my sister was faking her Southern accent when she lived down here because she'd drop it whenever she talked to people from back home, but now I know that it's just something we pick up.
posted by patheral at 2:07 PM on August 22, 2009

My Chinese-American classmates spoke with less American-ized accents when they spoke English just to each other.
Not something with English as non-first language, but my West Texan boyfriend slips into West Texas drawl and slang with his parents, even on the phone, but has a negligible accent with people where we live. I used to have a job where I spoke with people from various parts of the US all day, and I would subconsciously alter my accent based on who I was talking to (mostly turning on/off my southern/Texan/generic American "redneck" [including people from Appalachia] accent depending on whether the person I was talking with had one).
posted by ishotjr at 2:18 PM on August 22, 2009

i'm curious to why you think this is something other than code-switching (or an unusual example of code-switching) when, as ocherdraco points out, code-switching really is all it is. i mean:

Code-switching is a linguistics term denoting the concurrent use of more than one language, or language variety, in conversation. Multilinguals, people who speak more than one language, sometimes use elements of multiple languages in conversing with each other. Thus, code-switching is the syntactically and phonologically appropriate use of more than one linguistic variety.
posted by lia at 3:59 PM on August 22, 2009

I'm an Icelander who lives in the US. I would say it's code switching, though not conscious. When I'm in a mixed group of Icelanders and Anglophones my accent starts drifting towards an Icelandic accent. When I'm just around Anglophones I have an American accent (as in, people think I'm American, just from a different region than where they're from. On the East Coast I get asked a lot if I'm from Arizona and when I've been on the West Coast people have asked if I'm from Ohio, Chicago and Massachusetts (I live in Rhode Island).

But yeah, I think it's code switching, even though I'm definitely not conscious of it. It had to be pointed out to me.
posted by Kattullus at 5:26 PM on August 22, 2009

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