Trying to jump the accent divide
July 19, 2014 6:18 AM   Subscribe

One of our new IT vendors at work makes heavy use of an Indian workforce. Conference calls have become a challenge as we try to work through their accents. I recognize that I have a responsibility to do what I can to meet them halfway on the conversation. Are there podcasts, online radio streams, etc. that I can listen to where people from India are speaking in English so I can acclimate my ears to their peculiarities of their accents?

I do also understand that, along with "the American accent" having Boston, New York, Southern, and Valley Girl variants along with dozens of others, a similar phenomenon is almost sure to exist on the subcontinent. If it is useful, this vendor operates primarily out of Hyderabad.
posted by Golfhaus to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for trying to meet them halfway. I used to work for another company who heavily outsourced to India, so I can understand where you're coming from.

Honestly, it's going to take time. Even working 50-hour weeks for 2 years there, it took a few months before I was comfortable understanding the heavier accents. Now I have no issue with it--it's all about finding the cadence in their speech, then using those same rules to understand the rest of what someone is saying. For example, one of the Indian gentlemen at my current workplace says the word "correct" a lot, which tends to sound like "callect".

I don't have podcasts or anything for you specifically, but did find this on YouTube which may help. In the mean time, I would recommend just being patient, asking questions, and perhaps even asking for a follow-up clarity e-mail just to be safe.

Once you get it, you won't forget it. But then again, my family is like Epcot Center so I'm kind of spoiled when it comes to accent exposure.
posted by Verdandi at 6:53 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to work at a telecommunications company with counterpart offices on other continents. Our usual way of identifying each other when calling each other up was by using our initials so while we could expect Indian accents when calling Bangalore and Chennai, they probably couldn't tell our ethnicity when most of my office had California accents. Sometimes I would adopt an Indian accent (best I could fake) and it seemed easier for me to understand them when I did that and probably vice versa. I remember one bit went as follows:

Them (after I've already been talking to them with my faux accent multiple times): Oh, SN, are you Indian?
Me: No AB, I'm American.

I'm taking it as a compliment that they can't tell I'm not of Indian ancestry by my vocal skills.
posted by Seboshin at 6:56 AM on July 19, 2014

It sounds like meeting in person isn't an option here, but for any situation where you can I find that it helps tremendously.

The other thing is clarifying statements ("So, what you're saying is that blahblah blah?") and following up with emails. Something like "Here's what I took away from our call, please let me know if I missed anything."
posted by bunderful at 7:00 AM on July 19, 2014

If you can't meet face to face then video conferencing can be a big help in getting extra cues to help tune into people's accents. When I have problems (rare now, but I used to struggle with a few people in particular from our Indian office) I would blame the conference phone line and say I didn't catch what they said.
posted by crocomancer at 7:13 AM on July 19, 2014

Best answer: To help focus your search a little, just as US English accents can vary significantly by region, it's the same for Indian English accents. Even someone trying to learn how to parse a "Southern accent" will even have difficulty depending on whether you're talking Texas, or Louisiana, or Virginia, right? So, if your call center is in Mumbai, that'll help you focus your search for podcasts, etc.

This is just my personal analysis of the problem; I'm not a linguist by any means.

What's throwing your ear off, of course, is the difference in the stressed syllables - US English likes stressing a lot of second syllables - deVELop - but Indian English seems to stress the first syllable - DEVelop. So the rhythm of the language is altered enough that it's hard to mentally parse where the words are split up.

There are also the shifts in the vowels and consonants - depending on the speaker's first language, the fusion of their own language and British Indian English may lead to really confusing shifts in the sounds you expect to hear in familiar words.

These are the painful details, of course, but those are two details that if you focus and learn them for the specific region in which your call center is based, you're probably going to make much faster headway into understanding.

Now, all that being said, my mother speaks British Indian English, and I understand her perfectly because I've had decades to train my ear and of course her fluency is perfect, although I'm told she has a strong accent (you stop hearing accents when you're used to them, oddly).

However, this does NOT help me when speaking to a different Indian English speaker from a different part of the country - their linguistic cocktail is different, so their stresses and phonology can be so different that I cannot understand them, despite listening to Indian English speakers every single day of my life!

If you zero in on a city to learn the accent - like Mumbai - listening to live streaming English-language news might not be a bad way to train your ear without boring yourself to death. It's not going to be the background noise that the news normally is - you'll have to focus more - but that's at least learning with content!
posted by vetala at 7:43 AM on July 19, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: You can get English-language podcasts from the Indian public radio agency (Prasar Bharati) here: They include 3 major bulletins a day in English.
posted by crazy with stars at 8:09 AM on July 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Being a "sympathetic listener" goes a long way. Here are a couple of suggestions.

1) Indian movies in English (and again) with closed captions: using CC/subtitles is how I adjusted my ear when I first started watching British films and TV (although it was embarrassing to admit, I kept missing punchlines until I spent a few weeks doing this)

2) Imitating accents is actually a great way to gain some phonetic insight (though, personally, I would do this at home and not use it with others)

3) Take a look inside Learner English (search for "Indian") for some technical details
posted by wintersweet at 10:06 AM on July 19, 2014

This is a good question. The thing about the news is that, as everywhere, newscasters speak really differently than regular middle class people (usually much more British pronunciation, although slightly different). Not a bad place to start though. Also try Indian comedians in English. Here's an example, Vir Das. In this one his accent I think is pretty broadly reminiscent of the Indian middle class, although yes accents vary by region as has been mentioned above. This is because regional accents are always different as well as the fact that lots of native languages besides English and Hindi are spoken in India.

Sometimes I would adopt an Indian accent (best I could fake) and it seemed easier for me to understand them when I did that and probably vice versa.

Please don't do this.
posted by sweetkid at 10:30 AM on July 19, 2014 [8 favorites]

Sometimes I would adopt an Indian accent (best I could fake) and it seemed easier for me to understand them when I did that and probably vice versa. 

Please don't do this.

Yeah, definitely DO NOT do this.
posted by studioaudience at 10:43 AM on July 19, 2014 [16 favorites]

Anything you can do to improve audio quality of your conference calls will help. Good equipment on both ends (I'm very impressed with the Polycom speakerphone we use at my workplace), avoiding anyone's use of a mobile phone if at all possible, reducing room noise, and so on.
posted by in278s at 12:46 PM on July 19, 2014

One random thing that used to confuse me: "I have a doubt concerning..." where doubt means question. Don't know how common that usage is, but I had a couple Indian colleagues who used it.
posted by in278s at 12:48 PM on July 19, 2014

Best answer: Once upon a time, I was an American crew member on a Bollywood movie.

The secret is very simple. It's not even really a secret.

The secret is to listen.

Listen past the accent. When you hear an accent and your brain stops and all your thoughts back up and you can't get around the OMG FOREIGN ACCENT WEIRD WEIRD NOOOOOO roadblock, just ignore all that. Keep listening.

Keep doing it every day. All the time. Every meeting. Every phone call. Just keep doing it. Never give yourself the excuse not to do it.

Honestly don't understand something that was said? Ask the person to repeat. Serious misunderstanding arises? Work through it.

Yes, there are going to be awkward moments. But do not allow yourself to do what most people in this situation do, which is to shut down and burrow into this weird stubborn "oh no ew accent foreigner strange wtf" brain space.

Pretty soon, you won't even hear that these folks have an accent anymore, at all. They'll just be your coworkers, who talk however they talk.

FWIW, it's my experience that most Indians who speak English fluently actually speak it more precisely and "correctly" than Americans do. It's always seemed sort of racist to me to get hung up on Indian accents, assuming we're talking about bilingual folks and not people who are literally wrestling with a foreign tongue they're not proficient in.
posted by Sara C. at 3:07 PM on July 19, 2014 [7 favorites]

Based on personal experience with Indians speaking English, I think the single thing that can have the biggest impact is to ask them to SLOW DOWN. If they speak more slowly, you will probably find it considerably easier to understand what they are saying.
posted by Dansaman at 5:06 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice and resources, everyone. The insight on where Indian English stresses syllables in contrast to American English has proven to be very helpful. The suggestion to just let go of trying to see it as more of a translation exercise and "listen past the accent" has also helped. I feel a lot better about my ability to participate in these calls now.
posted by Golfhaus at 2:34 PM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I would adopt an Indian accent (best I could fake) and it seemed easier for me to understand them when I did that and probably vice versa.

Please don't do this.

Yeah, definitely DO NOT do this.

Because you'll be seen as mocking them, but interestingly, probably not by the people you're trying to mimic, but usually only by 3rd party listeners.
So, as an unconscious mimic myself, interestingly, people can't usually tell when you are mimicking their accent, because, to them, it usually just sounds like you have less of an accent.
People's own accents are invisible to them. They only notice the ways you sound different. If you're over exaggerating, they'll notice, but if you're in between your accent and theirs? Nobody from the 'target' accent notices, but anyone from your accent or a 3rd party accent will notice you sound different.

Anyway, point being, while you probably don't want to do it because YOUR coworkers will think it's weird, and I don't know, maybe you'll do it in a too heavy handed way, it is actually a really good way to pick up on accents. We learn by doing. It's like trying to learn the lyrics to a song without singing them. You can, of course. I mean, anecdotally I hear you can. I pretty much have to sing it to learn the lyrics.

This is just from my experience travelling, and working on phone helpdesks (at the moment, I'm usually accidentally mimicking Australians).
In case I haven't made it clear, I'm coming from the other angle, in that my problem is trying to NOT mimic in ways that are noticeable to any listeners (I'm conscious of it far, far more than other people are), but... I also seldom ever have any trouble listening to other English speakers, regardless of heavy accents, if that helps.
posted by Elysum at 5:57 AM on July 27, 2014

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