Open Sesame: The power of accent (by Dr.Mela Sarkar)

“What accent sells the most cars?” asked Michaela in a post last November. She was wondering about the supposed marketing effect of juxtaposing accents (French and English Canadian, in English) in radio advertising, considering our local context of Montreal. Recently I was reminded forcibly of the very real effect of my own English Canadian accent in a distinctly non-local context. It was in Kolkata, the teeming city where I was born but did not grow up (that honour belongs to Toronto). We Torontonians are often mistaken for Americans, both abroad and within Canada (I reserve the right to insist that there is an ever-so-subtle difference, though I have to admit I can’t put my sociolinguistic finger on it!). So it was hardly surprising to hear, from everybody I talked to in Kolkata, that to them my accent sounded American. Bengali relatives of all ages had to struggle to understand me, even those with excellent English.

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The English spoken in India, often extremely fluently as a first or very early-acquired second language in English-medium schools, is of course South Asian or “Indian” English (here’s an 11-minute sampler of various high-profile speakers of this variety, captured for demonstration purposes on Indian media and broken down by region). It’s all around us in Canada; a Canadian bank has even capitalized on the number of immigrants from South Asia in an ad pushing the quality of its services for new arrivals which, though its use of South Asian English, explicitly targets this huge potential market. Indo-Canadian comedian Russell Peters, a fellow Torontonian, regularly sends up the “accent” in his trademark stand-up self-mockery (though he reserves the most cutting punch lines for those who make fun of South Asians and the way they speak, which seems only fair). As Peters points out, in a deft bit of “sociolinguistic noticing”, the South Asian accent in English is “good for” some things and not other things, here in North America where it isn’t the norm.

In Kolkata, conversely, the non-local American accent is devastatingly good for some things though terrible for others. There wouldn’t be much point trying to bargain down a rickshaw-wallah (Kolkata is the last city on the planet where man-pulled rickshaws are still legal) or get a good deal at a local market. Kolkatans in this kind of service-type job know perfectly well that along with an American accent goes an American income. In any case, all but the very poor can hop a rickshaw or grab a 10-rupee cup of tea by the roadside (NB: there are currently 50 rupees to the Canadian dollar).

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However, very few Indians can afford to shop at upscale establishments in Kolkata’s trendy downtown Park Street or nouveau riche Western-style malls. Stores and restaurants fronted with floor-to-ceiling windows, air conditioned (very expensive) and flaunting gleaming piles of Western-style goods, are also fronted with guards at every entrance. The gatekeepers have a sharp eye for potential buyers and potential non-buyers. Local shoppers are presumably admitted if they look rich enough; in my somewhat underdressed-for-the-part case, admission was quite definitely on the basis of the way I sounded. From the first syllable I would utter, which was a very un-Indian “Hi!”, I was marked as an American. And that changed everything about how I was treated. I found the exaggerated respect with which I was treated by the doormen and sales personnel, time after time, to be quite disconcerting.

Linguistic imperialism lives! Reading Robert Phillipson’s ground-breaking book shortly after it came out in 1992 set me on a path that continues to this day. Critical scholars of applied linguistics and sociolinguistics, like Phillipson, or renowned Indian sociolinguist Debi Pattanayak, rightly question the global rush toward more and earlier English teaching in places like India. After this latest visit to my birthplace, I feel more than ever that I have no business telling Indians what they want or need. English is certainly on the list of must-haves. But it’s their English, not mine. And it is nothing if not constantly and creatively translanguaged. In schools, out of schools, everywhere in South Asia, where, as Suresh Canagarajah points out, plurilingualism has always been the norm.

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I look forward to the day when merely sounding like an American or British native speaker (and yes, the term “native speaker” grows fuzzier by the day) is no longer enough to cause doors to open and sales personnel to salaam deeply, in Kolkata or anywhere else. It isn’t the accent they are saluting, it’s the money that is assumed to go with it. Money talks…but the world in which American English is the language in which it talks loudest is, I hope, on the way out. Certainly more and better education is needed in places like the slums of Kolkata or economically underdeveloped rural regions elsewhere in West Bengal (both are areas where my Kolkata cousins help to run a small local NGO whose projects mainly promote education for very poor girls). Nobody knows that better than the people who live there. But they will decide what kind of education best serves their interests. And they will also be in the vanguard of deciding what English will be “good for” in India…and which English, and why.

5.jpegThese rural West Bengal girls are part of a new generation of multilingual, “multicompetent” language users in a rapidly modernizing, politically self-aware India. Used with permission.

References

Canagarajah, S. (2009). The plurilingual tradition and the English language in South Asia. AILA Review, 22, 5-22.

Pattanayak, D.P (1990). Multilingualism in India. Clevedon, Avon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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