31 March 2011

Off the beaten track: Role of accents in language

As an Indian who was born and brought up in a bilingual parentage and lives in a region in which people speak a language that is different from what we speak in my home, I have had the pleasure of experiencing the nuances of nearly eight Indian languages and a bit of French and German, besides English.

In my boyhood, I studied in government schools where the medium of instruction was not English. However, as English was also used as a lingua franca in our home, I could find English to be an easy language. I retain my interest in English language and literature to this day.

It is amazing as to how idiomatic English of my boyhood years ("Hope this letter of mine finds you in the best of health and cheers") has gradually changed to email English of today ("hi").

Although linguistic metamorphosis is inevitable, I find that the role played by accents hasn’t changed much over the years. As communications technology continues to grow taking the customer base along with it, somewhat like the pied piper of Hamelin, every one of us is affected due to it, in one way or the other.

In fact, how we communicate with others becomes a very pronounced issue, as we move from country to country in search of a job or just for sightseeing. What role does accent play in language communication? This article presents my snapshot view on accents.

Nearly three years back, I left for Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to work with the country's Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, for a year.

When I reached Phnom Penh on 18 September 2008, after a tiresome flight from Chennai via Bangkok, it was great to experience the cordiality and friendliness of the Khmer people. Soon after reaching the airport, I could sense my difficulty in understanding their English with Cambodian accent. I felt very embarrassing to ask my Cambodian colleagues to repeat what they said. However, within a few weeks, I got used to their accent. When I recollect my auditory experience, I think that their `toomarrow' sounded sweeter than `tomorrow'.

Once when I was in a restaurant in Kolkota (known as Calcutta then), I ordered for `curd' (the Indian equivalent of plain yoghurt). But the waiter couldn't understand what I needed, until I enacted a role-play to show how a bowl of milk was churned and so on. Good heavens, he got the idea and brought a delicious cup of `chord'.

When I was working in the editorial department of a textbook publishing company, my colleague used to ask me to `simbly’ estimate the right amount of `royal tea' for authors. As someone who never knew of offering tea as a compensation for good writing, I found his idea to be utterly hilarious. It took a few weeks for me to realise that the term used by that colleague from Kerala actually meant `royalty'. His `simbly’ stood for `simply’.

When I was teaching in Southern Africa, I needed to take my `lunch' (pronounced as in `push') (thanks to my neighbour form Yorkshire), needed to take care of myself from heavy `rhine' (to mean `rain'), (thanks to my friend from Australia) or I needed to take my car to `ze' petrol station when the petrol was in reserve, as advised by another friend from `Ze Neederland'.

I think that the accent aspect of any language should also be taught when we teach languages to kids. I think that different accents add colour to any language, and English is no exception.

Now, let me watch that 1964 musical `My fair lady' yet another time, and enjoy its aroma of accents. See you next `thime'. `Thaenk' you.

Accent is the soul of a language: it gives the feeling and truth to it (the language) - Jean Jacques Rousseau in `Ăˆmile'.

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About Me

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Chennai, Tamilnadu, India
I am a retired K-12 Education Management Professional. I have worked at different levels in K-12 school systems, textbook publishing, elearning and Education NGOs. I have held memberships in The Association for Science Education (UK), American Association of Physics Teachers and The Malaysian Institute of Physics. I hold a 1st class B Sc Degree in Physics followed by B Ed [English and Physical Science] and M A [Childcare and Education] degrees. My published works include 59 articles in teacher development magazines in India and the US and a book entitled `Creative Classrooms and Child Friendly Schools' (listed in Amazon). This book is almost an anecdotal account of my professional experience in six countries (including Cambodia where I worked as Technical Adviser to the Ministry of Education, Youth And Sports). I served as mentor in the Certificate of Teaching Mastery Program offered by Teachers Without Borders.