To speak of ‘Indian speakers of English’ is to cast a very wide net. There is no one Indian accent - you will hear differences from region to region and language to language. However, there are some sounds that are difficult to make in English, whether your mother tongue is Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Gujarati or any of the other 17 major languages! Whatever your native language, it will have some effect on the way you speak English, particularly as some English sounds are not present in many of the languages of India, so it’s not just adaptation but getting your mouth around something completely new.
Read this blog by our Senior Coach Olivia Darnley for five British pronunciation tips for Indian speakers of English.
Vowels cause challenges for all non-native English speakers, no matter their accent, and Indian is no exception. Many of the English vowel sounds have equivalents, or near equivalents in most Indian languages, however there are eight vowel sounds that don’t appear in Indian languages and may be tricky for an Indian speaker of English.
The sound 'e' as in 'bed' often gets confused with the sound 'a' as in 'bad' which can result in confusion, for example “that’s a bed blanket” compared to "that’s a bad blanket”
The 'o' vowels as in 'hot' and 'horse' can be confused with the long 'aah' sound (as in 'bath')
The diphthong sounds in 'bake', 'bike', boy and boat can be difficult and are often shortened to a single sound.
To practise, we recommend choosing one vowel at a time and working on it until you are using it in everyday speech. Record yourself saying it, say it in the mirror and ask friends for feedback in everyday conversation. When you’ve got it perfected, move onto the next vowel.
There are many consonants in English which do not have an equivalent in Indian languages and these may be difficult for an Indian speaker of English to master. The English accent tends to be more ‘airy’ and light when compared to the Indian accent, where the tongue is often pressed and held for too long in the sounds.
The major players...
The two 'th' sounds as in 'think' and 'this'. These are often replaced with 't' and 'd' - 'tink' and 'dis'
T and d sounds are made further back in the mouth (towards the roof of the mouth) by Indian speakers of English which are less likely to cause confusion but makes a very different sound to that made by native English speakers. Both these sounds are made with the same mouth position - so how do you differentiate? It’s called “voicing” and “devoicing”. When you say the ‘t’ sound, rather than using your voice, you just push air out, as opposed to the ‘d’ where you use your voice to produce the sound. The same rule applies to other sounds: ‘z’ vs ‘s’, ‘b’ vs ‘p’ and ‘g’ vs ‘k’.
Distinguishing 'w' and 'v' can be hard for Indian speakers of English. As there is only one equivalent sound in Indian languages, it can be hard to even hear the difference.
W - lips come forward and release into w. Lips must be rounded firmly: try saying 'wet', 'wary', 'wine'
V - top teeth press on bottom lip and release - 'vet', 'very', 'vine'.
These sounds take a lot of practice to get right, try it out in a mirror whilst resting your hand on your throat, and you will be able to differentiate the sounds. The differences are subtle but very important in avoiding misunderstanding.
3. Word stress
It is not only sounds that can make life difficult, but also the way we say them and where we place the rhythm. English is a stress-timed language which helps share our message. We give stressed syllables extra energy compared to unstressed or ‘weak’ syllables. Native English speakers naturally use different stress patterns to communicate their message but for most non-native speakers of English this has to be learned. Indian languages are syllable-timed and stress is secondary to rhythm. English stress patterns are unpredictable, whereas in Indian languages stress is predictable.
In English there is usually one stressed syllable in a word, resulting in the rest of the syllables being weak or unstressed.
Time to practise...
Try saying banana. Ba.na.na These three syllables are not given equal stress in English, the middle syllable ‘na’ is the star of the show whilst the ba and second na step out of the spotlight resulting in ba.NAA.na, Try using a slightly higher pitch in your voice, making this syllable slightly longer or slightly louder. Banana.
A great way to practice word stress is by identifying whether a word is a noun or a verb.
First syllable stress = NOUN
Second syllable stress = VERB
Try with the following words DEsert deSERT CONtrast conTRAST OBject obJECT
Many of our clients get very excited by English intonation and how learning the patterns of intonation can make them feel and sound more expert when communicating in English. Questions can be a particularly difficult area - in English a question is marked by a rising intonation - your voice will go up in pitch, however the style for questions in most Indian languages is to go up in pitch, followed by a fall at the end of the question. This rise to the ‘sing-song’ quality which you may have heard from fluent English speakers from India. This can sound more like a demand or statement to English ears and potentially create a false impression of abruptness.
5. Influence of spelling on pronunciation
In Indian languages, spelling is a fairly accurate guide to pronunciation, which leads Indian speakers of English to be too faithful to the spelling when speaking English. This also affects rhythm and stress..
For example, the R in English can be tricky for Indian speakers of English as they want to pronounce what they see, however the r in English is not pronounced following a vowel or in front of a consonant:
'H' is often silent in English - for example in 'ghost' and 'where'
'S' and 'Z' - although written as an 's' this can be a 'z' sound when plural - for example 'feels' (feelz) and 'things' (thingz)
Mastering just some of the main differences in English - those tricky consonants w, v, t, d and th and understanding stress patterns and rhythm can transform how you sound and the responses you get from other speakers of English.
While these are some of the common challenges experienced by English speakers from an Indian background, each of the clients we work with has unique roadblocks depending on their experience and specific accent. If you feel like your accent is holding you back from reaching your true potential at work or in your daily life, book in a free 15-minute Discovery Call where we’ll discuss your particular challenges, and how we can help you overcome them with a bespoke Accent Softening course to suit your goals and budget.