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The Complexity of Indian Accents in American English

Not everyone from India has the same accent, so what’s important to think about when identifying what to focus on to create clear speech?

Here are some things to consider:

1. Some people from India are English-medium schooled. Some are not.
What’s the difference? Some people in India speak their first languages in school to learn math, science, and many other subjects. They also take an English class. That may be the only exposure the person has to English. So while they know some English, students who are not English-medium schooled, don’t speak it daily. This is very different from someone who is English-medium schooled.  This means the person learned English from a very young age and took all of their subjects in English … BIG DIFFERENCE! A good question to ask someone from India is “Were you English-medium-schooled and if so, from what age?”


2. Many people from India speak with tense articulation, which might make their speech sound fast.
If you consider that most people from India have had more exposure to British English, this makes sense. If you combine British articulation with some of the articulation patterns found in many of the Indian languages, you’ll find that none of these languages jaw-drop the way American do, so no wonder their speech is going at a fast clip! Speech from a tense jaw is faster than speech made while dropping the jaw (it just takes longer to jaw drop).


3. Complexity & Variety
If you count all of them (major and other), there are over 1700 languages in India. Not surprising, then, that there is some variety in speech patterns. I find southern Indian language speakers have some of the most challenging issues when attempting to make an American /r/ (compared to speakers of other Indian languages). Contrary to what we might think, not everyone from India speaks Hindi; some people who speak Telugu or Tamil don’t speak Hindi much, if at all. I also notice a tendency among those who speak southern Indian languages (like Telugu, Tamil, Kannada or Malayalam) to struggle more with word stress in English. Compared to northerners/north-westerners who speak Punjabi, Gujarati, Marati, or Hindi, they tend to have more difficulty knowing which syllable to stress and then being able to elongate that syllable reliably. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. There are those from other parts of India, like the eastern regions, who speak Oriya and Bengali, and have trouble distinguishing /s/ and /sh/ and /ch/ and /j/, for example. Add to all of that complexity that many people from India speak multiple Indian languages or have been exposed at an early age to relatives who do, so they may speak with a variety of characteristics from different influences.


4. What to do about it?
If someone from India is having challenges speaking American English clearly at a comfortable pace, they may need to familiarize themselves with the vowels Americans use … they may be using British vowels, or some combination of vowels from their first languages and British vowels, and they are not aware of the vowel substitutions. They may also speak at a faster pace than American audiences are used to, and they may not pause and breathe as they go. They may have a lot of issues with the /w/ and /v/ sound distinctions, and their /th/ sounds make sound like /t/’s. Their /t/ sounds may have little bouncy/poppy qualities and they may be using a different part of their tongues to make the sounds. They may also be throaty speakers. And, for southern languages in particular, word stress patterns in American English and how to stress syllables by elongating them is key to intelligibility.


With some in-depth inquiry into specifically what Indian first-language speakers are doing differently and what they may find challenging, it’s possible to pinpoint what to work on to help them communicate with clarity in American English.