“Accent and the Man” by Anil Shrivastava ‘Musafir’

After living in the Midwest region of the United States for 47 years (a lifetime), I still have an accent. And who doesn’t? My problem is that my accent doesn’t fit in any of the familiar categories, New England, Pacific Northwest, Southern, Midwestern, Cajun, Hawaiian, Native American or African American.

I have noticed that the way one speaks a language is heavily influenced by his/her first language. I started out with Bihari-Indian accent (Bihar is a state of India) and that still sticks with me. No matter who we are, we all have accent. John Travolta’s accent is different from Tom Cruise’s and Bill Clinton’s is different from Barack Obama’s. So, what’s a standard accent? Like beauty, it’s in the eyes of the beholder (ears of the listener in this case).Yet people frown upon those who sound different than the people living in the region. The most ridiculous case in point is the superior air with which a person, who has spent some time in Boston, looks down upon the average person of the South.

The last time I visited Boston, I had a hard time ordering food through a drive-through speaker. I got so frustrated that I drove to the window and placed my order with the server. She was a Korean woman who had an accent of a different kind. Her ears were tuned to the Bostonian accent though. We couldn’t understand each other. Ultimately, she called the manager who took my order.

When I sat down to eat, I had a momentary flash of annoyance that a person, whose work is to fashion a sandwich from the ingredients in front of her, should have so much trouble following a simple order. Then I realized that, in a country where English is a second language to 67.3 million people and in a city where 25% are foreign-born, it was I, the customer, who should learn to cope with the limited linguistic skill of a low-wage server.

It is well-known that in the US people are discriminated, if they seem to speak with an unfamiliar accent. There is a bias against the non-native accent. This is true everywhere. When I worked in Delhi, India, I was made fun of at work because of my Bihari accent which was not Punjabi sounding. It happens everywhere in the world.

Of course, we want to be understood when we speak. Our intonation of words must bear a reasonable semblance to the expected sound of the words. This has become easier thanks to the internet. You can click on any word in a dictionary and hear the right sound, and you can do so in any major language. But to strive for the correct pronunciation is a far cry from the inane attempt to ape the ‘correct’ accent. However, I’ll keep trying. Who knows? Someday it may just come to me.

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