Do you remember this video that went viral not too long ago?
It is hilarious because it is true. The first thing we Malayalis ask when are introduced to a fellow Malayali is, “naattilevideya?” But something else that struck me was the change in the accent. And that’s quite true too, isn’t it?
Many of my friends who stay overseas, especially in places where English is the first language, have picked up an accent; to be precise, abandoned their Malayali accent. But their foreign accent disappears the moment they switch to Malayalam.
But I’ve done the same without moving out of India! When I moved to Mumbai, one of the first things my new friends told me was that I had a Malayali accent. So, like most chameleon Malayalis, I made a conscious effort to abandon it and develop a ‘neutral accent’. But why do we do this? And do people from other countries and cultures do the same?
As it turns out, it’s not just us Malayalis (or Indians for that matter) who adopt accents. Most people who move from one English-speaking country to another subconsciously adopt the new country’s accent. An Australian who lives in the US for a few years develops an American accent. It is a part of how humans integrate into new cultures – by imitating the world around them.
But then, that’s not what I’m not talking about. I’m talking about the disdain that we have for our natural accent – something that makes us think that it is less sexy and that it sounds less intelligent. And what’s worse? We make fun of each other for having an accent! That’s why people going for a two-week vacation to the Western hemisphere come back with a foreign accent, or people like me shed the ‘accent’ without stepping foot outside the country.
This disdain probably stems out of the colonial mentality that we developed while under British occupation. But it keeps getting reinforced by stereotypes in our pop culture – think of characters who have a ‘South Indian accent’ in Bollywood movies or an ‘Indian accent’ in Hollywood movies. And this leads to people not being comfortable with conversing in English. And that’s a big problem because one of India’s inherent advantages in the modern world is that she has a large educated English speaking population – 10% of Indians can speak English, making it the second-largest English speaking country in the world. People who can be employed in the IT and service sector, fuelling the economic growth of the country.
But what stops the other 90%? Lack of access to quality education? Yes. But I’m sure a good 5-10% do not get the opportunity to ‘speak’ in English out of the fear that their accents would be mocked. And as any polyglot would tell you, you gain fluency in a language by speaking it. So this accent shaming is leading to people missing out on opportunities and is a barrier to our economic progress. And that’s why it is imperative that we solve this issue.
How do we solve it? The longer-term solution is to have positive pop culture influences. Take Kenny Sebastian for example.
He is very comfortable in his natural accent and inspires us to be confident in ours. And widespread exposure to natural Indian accents will eventually lead to less shaming and less negative connotations attached to accents. It is heartwarming to see many influencers and actors embracing their natural accents and showing us that we need not be ashamed to show our true selves. We need more of that.
But you can be the agent of change too.
Stop making fun of people’s accents. Be it a Malayali accent or an American accent, we should just abandon accent shaming. The purpose of language is to convey thoughts, and as long as the message is conveyed clearly, the accent shouldn’t matter. Give credit to the person for trying, remember that you were once in their shoes (or would’ve been if it wasn’t for the privilege that you enjoy).
And if you are someone who is a victim of accent shaming, remember that the people who mock you do so out of deep-seated insecurity. Don’t let them piss on your parade. Stay confident and believe in yourself.
I end this post with a quote by author Amy Chua, “Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery.”