Bad News : If You Speak English With Strong Accent (like me)

speak English fluentlyOn the subject of English. Yes, it does matter. No, it’s not the end of the world if you have an accent or less than perfect grammar.

This article  is follow-up 5 Tips to Improve your English Writing and Speaking Skills

First, the good news. The US is full of immigrants.

If you live or work in a large metropolitan area, everyone you meet will be used to speaking English with an strong (strange) accents, and no one really cares that much.

Spanish, Chinese, Jamaican, Indian, Nigerian.. you name the country, and there’s likely to be someone with that accent. As long as you’re polite and smile often (not too much though, you don’t want to look like an idiot), you should get along fine.

If you’re in a less cosmopolitan area, I’ve heard it’s different. I’ve never lived in such places, so I can’t comment.

Now, the bad news. If you have a strong accent, you WILL be seen as an outsider, and there are various ways in which this works against you.

For example, when you go for an interview, you will be fighting the stereotype of the typical Indian who nods his head too much. People may not take you seriously if the job that you’re applying for involves a lot of communication (marketing jobs, sales, that kind of thing).

Also, when you’re on conference calls or presenting before an audience, people may not fully understand what you say, and are mostly too polite to ask for clarification, thereby lessening the efficacy of your presentation.

Good news again: Indians are seen as being really smart, especially if you’re in IT or medicine.

If you’re in these fields, your accent matters far less than your ability. I think Raghu can testify to this, since he’s in IT (I’m not, I’m in marketing and communications).

Bad news: If you’re single (and a guy), you definitely need to work on your accent. I’m not talking about hitting on women or being sleazy; the simple fact is that hanging out with co-workers is where a lot of networking happens, and in social scenarios, the Indian accent is unfortunately not the best.

If we sounded like the French, on the other hand, you better believe we’d be doing FAR better :D

It’s a little less pronounced if you’re an attractive lady, but that’s reverse sexism at play, and you may not want to be judged on the basis of how you look.

The bottom line is that English matters. Heck, forget about the US. North Indians make fun of South Indian accents, and vice versa. It’s the same thing on a larger scale.

It’s just another hurdle to cross. Work on your English, and things are just much easier. You don’t have to put on a fake American accent; a neutral accent is far better than trying to mimic people. But do try to remove the heavy accent if you have one, and work on pronunciation. You’ll just feel more confident.

At the end of the day, it’s just a language. You can’t let a language get you down; it’s not what defines your intelligence and your character. If you can learn how to bowl an outswinger, or dance kathak, or fly a kite, or drive in Bangalore traffic, or pass your 12th boards while deeply in love… you can learn a language.

You just have to want to.

Guest Blog Post by Aditya Nag. New Video Interview with Aditya is coming soon.

Next – New Grads from India Lack These 5 Must Have Skills

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  1. Hi Aditya!

    Nice Post!

    Well, learning has no end and its always beneficial to assess our strength & weakness and work upon our shortcomings. Same applies to our accent, no matter from which place of the globe we belong, we may have mother tongue influence in our accent and that can be improved by working on it…we should observe ourselves or can ask our friends what are those particular words or letter which looks odd when we speak….Talking about myself, when ever i need to give public presentation or speech, just before that i prepare my script read it loud in front of my friends or colleague and ask them to give feedback on accent, voice modulation etc. ..I underline those words and with help of voice-dictionary i just try to catch that particular pronunciation… I also watch English movies and news to improve myself and overcome my accent problem…So, i think feedback is key and that can improve us to a great extent!

    Thanks a lot for sharing this blog!

  2. Both Aditya Nag and Albert C. Francis have given valuable suggestions to improve your spoken and written English. I shall add only a couple of more items you could add to your list: (1) Listen to the BBC World News or BBC Radio (preferably with head phones). Not all BBC correspondents are good speakers and their sentences are sometimes awkward, but all of them are native speakers of the language and placing the accent on the right syllable comes naturally to them. Over a year or so, if you listen regularly, you will pick up the correct intonation. Do not try to mimic; we won’t be able to keep it up and when we slip, it would sound awkward. (2) Add the British newspaper Guardian to your reading list. It is still available online for free; so make use of it.
    In previous postings, I have mentioned the Cambridge University Press publications on Grammar (Basic, Intermediate and Advanced) by Raymond Murphy and Martin Hewings. The language of the practice exercises is unfailingly elegant. Try to read them aloud and even memorize some of them. The sentences used as exercises in these books are the kind of sentences you would use in your everyday life unlike the sentences in Indian grammar books; eg.”A snake was killed by Rama” – a sentence you will never use if you lived to be a hundred years.
    I am afraid I don’t quite understand (or agree with) Mr. Francis’s objection to “colored future” and “perfect continuous” tenses. Colored future is just a fancy term for a particular kind of use of “will” and “shall”, mostly “shall”. In the sentences, “The train will arrive in the morning; I shall meet you at the station,” ‘will’ and ‘shall’ are used as pure future tenses – ie. these events will happen in the future. But in a sentence like, “If you continue your dissolute ways, you shall regret it,” the ‘shall’ not only indicates something that would happen in the future, but also contains a warning, a prediction. That tone of warning or prediction is the color added to the pure futurity of the ordinary use of ‘shall’. That’s all there is to it. All of us use it; we don’t need to know that grammatically it is the ‘colored’ future in order to use it.

    The perfect continuous tense takes the form of “have been doing” (present perfect continuous) or “had been doing” (past perfect continuous) [In American grammar texts ‘continuous’ is referred to as ‘progressive’] “I have been taking the same route to work for so long that I can do it blindfolded.” OR “He had been living there only a few months; yet, the whole village seemed to know him.” You can write these sentences without the perfect continuous but they won’t be half as beautiful.
    This post about “Indian accent” has also raised a lot of questions about cultural familiarity. That requires a whole new post, but here I shall just relate the experience of an HMT sales engineer who was posted to the U.S. in the 1980’s. He was an avid sports enthusiast, and before he started his job he read up a lot on the three BIG American sports – Baseball, (American) Football and Basketball. [This was before the days of the Internet when information was not so easily available.] In a few months he had learnt the names of the great players, both contemporary and past, he knew statistics of ERAs and RBIs strike rates and walks, field goals and assists and rebounds, yards passed and rushed and touch downs and interceptions. Most of his clients were engineering and manufacturing companies and when he visited them the people he dealt with were shop floor superintendents and foremen and engineers and the conversation during lunch in the cafeterias was always about the games of that weekend or Monday Night Football and our man could talk like a native about Pete Rose and Johnny Bench and Terry Bradshaw and Joey Montana and debate if Jim Kelley was a better quarter back than Dan Marino – the whole works. Well, he turned out to be one of HMT’s most successful sales engineers. There are more ways than one to bell a cat.

    1. “A snake was killed by Rama” – a sentence you will never use if you lived to be a hundred years.

      Ha, I laughed out loud at that. I suppose it’s theoretically possible to use this sentence, but the confluence of events that would need to occur boggles the mind.

  3. Indians tend to speak faster while Americans prefre people who speak slowly. Also Indians are impatient listeners. They tend to speak in between while other people are speaking. These are considered bad manners here in US.

  4. People come on I work for AT&T sales at Bangalore. We sell I phones, Samsung and all other phones along with Direct TV, AT&T broad band services. I use american accent a lot I am in this industry for more than 2 years. I am basically from Hyderabad. I have see north people come for jobs to Bangalore and Hyderabad a lot. We make fun of many north indians when they speak English with this hindi accent cocks in their language all the time, no matter how good they are with the vocab. Most of the skilled ppl are from south. Come out of the illusion that north guys talks better English. North indian English is very intimidating. No city can beat Bangalore youth.

    1. totally agree with you on that buddy.
      those guys have that heavy mother tongue influence in their English and its so intimidating to hear. i sometimes forget my basic sentence formation when i hear these guys . totally awful!. when we have team meetings and presentations at our office and supposedly its a northi guy who is giving out the lecture it is absolute nonsense. i wonder how they try to grab some top posts.
      as always there is space for improvement.
      and no offence guys.

    2. Rav, Sony, Raja,

      I believe you guys are misunderstanding my post; I never said that the North Indians are better at English.

      I simply said: North Indians make fun of South Indian accents, and vice versa.

      If you prefer, you can read it as “South Indians make fun of North Indian accents and vice versa.”

      All I’m doing is explaining by analogy. I’m certainly not implying that any particular region is better than the other.


  5. guys,i can only tell that our indianized version of English is pathetic.we try to imitate the accents of each individual that we come across.i feel language accent should be clean and articulated well enough for any one to understand what they are trying to say..

    1. difference between accent and pronunciation. good pronunciation (&enunciation) is not the same as accent. neutral accent and good pronunciation is best.

  6. “Good news again: Indians are seen as being really smart, especially if you’re in IT or medicine. ” – quite a relief.

  7. nice one…..If you can learn how to bowl an outswinger, or dance kathak, or fly a kite, or drive in Bangalore traffic, or pass your 12th boards while deeply in love… you can learn a language.You just have to want to………..

    As i am a kathak dancer

  8. Yea it is good motivating boost for the novice people in USA.
    But no solution is given for such people, like what we should do for improvement of language.

    1. Hey Rishma,
      I’m the author of this blog post.

      You’re right, I didn’t make any suggestions on how to get better. That’s primarily because this blog post was a comment that I’d left on a previous article, and written in five minutes; I wasn’t really thinking of it as a blog post!

      I feel bad that you pointed this out, so I’ll write a long comment that gives you some suggestions. I will point out that I’m not a qualified teacher or anything like that; this is just my opinion on the matter. Feel free to disagree.

      The first thing I’ll say is this: There is no silver bullet. By that, I mean that there’s no magical way of getting better at English (or anything else, for that matter). You can’t go from broken, ungrammatical English to perfectly fluent in two weeks.

      I know this sounds obvious, but I’m always surprised by the number of people who start preparing for the GMAT, and think that they can “brush up” their language skills in the last two weeks.

      Protip: You can’t. You can perhaps get better by 20-30% in two weeks. If you’re already pretty good, then yes, two weeks is enough. If you’re terrible, you need to spend months. The first step to getting better at something is accurately recognizing your current capabilities, and understanding where you want to be.

      English consists largely of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and colloquialisms. These are in a specific order for a reason.

      Grammar: This is the foundation of the language. If you have bad grammer, you’re always going to be weak at the language, no matter how many words you memorize, or how polished your accent is.

      I can’t stress this enough! Learn to use proper grammar. Sadly, I know that schools no longer teach grammar the way they used to. How do I know this? My mother taught English for over 20 years at some really good schools, and retired as the Head of the Department. She’s seen how the books and methods have changed, with the emphasis shifting from grammar. It’s unfortunate.

      Learning grammar without a teacher is hard. It’s not impossible though, especially in the age of the internet.

      Try these ->

      Assuming your grammar is reasonably decent, the next steps are much much easier.

      Vocabulary: You know how everyone tells you to read more? They’re right! Read as much as you can. The subject doesn’t matter so much, but do pick well written articles. It’s all on the internet. Read The Economist, read the New Yorker, the NY Times, the Hindu.. read it all.

      When you read, make a note of the words you don’t comprehend. Look them up in a dictionary. You’ll also find that as you get better, you can often make a very good guess based on the context. For example,

      “Harry Houdini was a great magician. His feats of prestidigitation and legerdemain left audiences speechless.”

      Even if you don’t know what “prestidigitation” and “legerdemain” mean, you can probably guess they have something to do with performing magic on stage. And you’d be quite correct.

      Read, read, and then read some more.

      And when you’re done reading, write. Try and use newer and more complex words to express your ideas.

      There are some great courses on writing available online. Check this out:

      Pronunciation: Easy! Watch TV and movies (english, naturally) and speak in english. Listen to people who speak well. Imitate how they speak. News anchors are a good place to start. But more than anything else, speak in English, and solicit feedback from people who know what they are talking about.

      Colloquialisms: This one comes after everything else. They vary tremendously; American colloquialisms are totally unlike British ones, and Australian ones are even harder to figure out. It’s a cultural thing. Movies, TV shows, music, etc.

      This is something you pick up when you’re immersed in a culture, and people generally don’t mind that you don’t know about TV shows from the 80s & things like that. When you do pick up colloquialisms though, it’s MUCH easier to take part in social conversations.

      I’d say you keep up with new events and happenings, and don’t worry so much about older ones. For example, there is a show in the US that is HUGE. It’s called Game of Thrones. Everyone talks about it. If you watch that show, you’ll be part of the conversation.

      This also depends on where you live, and whom you hang out with.

      This is turning into a very long comment, so I’ll stop now. I hope some of these suggestions are helpful. Other people can also comment and add their suggestions.


    2. I don’t think it is that hard for an Indian to speak good English. I am an Indian student, currently abroad in a US university, and my American friends have remarked how well I speak and write English.

      For speaking (accent), just listen to something by NATIVE English speakers (may be Nat. Geo or Discovery channel or whatever you like). Listen to where the native speakers stress syllables (most Indian languages don’t stress any syllable — so, Indians mostly follow the same style for English too, and, as a result, speak flat English).

      For writing, try to write simple clear sentences (may be essays or letters or whatever) — the emphasis should be on conveying the meaning as clearly as possible with simple sentences. Better don’t follow the English in many Indian newspapers — I found them convoluted, unclear, and requiring a huge dictionary to stop by each word. Also, avoid short-forms, internet slang, jargoan etc — these make it hard to read and often unclear. Some English stories, New York Times, and some technical papers (like IEEE), I think, are well-written. Just as listening is a guide to better speaking, so also, reading is a guide to better writing.

      Vocabulary — doesn’t matter that much. If you are very clear about the meaning as well as the proper context in which to use a word — then use it. If not, then better don’t make awkward use of fancy words. Wordweb software is an easy way of picking up vocabulary.

      Grammar — just need to know the basics. Then, you pick up later as you read and write more and more. Wren and Martin is known to be a good grammar book. But, again, there can be so many outdated forms of grammar, like the perfect continuous tense, colored future etc. So, try to learn what is most commonly used, and, you can ignore whatever is not used.

      Other things — use proper punctuations, proper organization of ideas into paragraphs etc.

  9. Interesting post. I like it.

    I will add that one more thing that makes it difficult to mingle with people is understanding of local culture (read lack of it) so the common topics are far and few.

    Many US TV shows and movies are embedded directly/indirectly into everyday conversation for example you may hear someone saying “wish I had a tricoder” or “so say we all” or refer to spock or “growing the beard”.

    It took me many years of hard work into US culture to get to a point where I can hold a long stimulating conversation with people born and bought up in US. This said, my slight Indian accent still hurts 🙁

  10. Having been studying in UK and working for almost 3 years, I believe my English accent is like British people [well give or take]. Interesting part, I am in IT and work for US company. In a non-formal meeting full of Americans I was called having a weird accent. Strange enough, British people never said like that and in my previous job my Brit manager actually told me I have better accent and pronunciation of English than the other Indian people he had worked it.

    All about perception, I think.

  11. Ha ha. A really nice article and some real good advice that the new batch of students really need….

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