Discover more from Adastra Speech - Thinking About Speaking
Tips for Listening to Indian English (or any accent)
I haven’t answered questions on Quora in a long time, but I should get back to doing it because I liked reading other people’s answers and offering something different. Here’s one that I have always been asked a lot and the tips aren’t only for Indian English, they apply to any accent that you’re not used to listening to.
Ankit and Prakash gave great suggestions to simply ask the speaker to repeat and to increase your exposure to speakers who have the accent that you’ll be listening to the most. I’m not sure what your native language is, so I can only share what has helped me as an American English speaker who has had difficulty understanding speakers of Indian English (from a variety of regions/dialects and native languages). I taught classes that were almost exactly 50/50 students from China and India. We all had trouble understanding each other. These students were starting their first semester of graduate school in the US so they had limited exposure to understanding each other’s accented English (as well as my own) before they arrived. Here are some things that I taught explicitly and it goes both ways, it was helpful for me understanding Indian and Mandarin accented English and for them to understand American English.
Direction of Intonation (the tone of your voice getting higher/lower in pitch)
The overall direction of pitch can be confusing when a statement goes up at the end of the sentence, as is common in Indian English. I perceive that as a question instead of a statement, so I had to adjust my expectations that all statements would end with the pitch getting lower at the end of the sentence. In Mandarin, the ends of the sentences may stay completely flat in pitch or go up, which can have the same effect.
This is also important for turn-taking. In American English, it’s okay for the pitch to go up at the end of a phrase in the middle of the sentence because you’re not completely finished, but when you get to the end, it should go down and stretch out that final sound a little longer. This is a subtle cue to the listener - when my pitch goes up in the middle of a sentence, I’m not finished, don’t interrupt me, when my pitch goes down at the end, I’m done with that complete thought and you can jump in here. When these expectations aren’t met by the speaker, I’m not sure when they’re completely finished and when it’s my turn. If there are long pauses or if you and the other person speak at the same time, that’s an issue with turn-taking. Try using more eye contact to signal that you are finished speaking and are listening and waiting for them.
Emphasized words will help you ask better questions
Important words will be emphasized with higher pitch but can be difficult to distinguish from all the other words when an Indian English speaker’s pitch goes up on many words, even the less important words. Don’t try to understand every single word, try to notice words that stand out more than others because those will be the more meaningful words.
Instead of just asking someone, “Could you repeat that?” give them some clues that you understood something, just not all of it, use the words you caught and leave the blanks, “You went to where on vacation?” Now the speaker can just reply with a single word, which is always easier to understand than trying to catch a word as it goes by quickly in a full sentence. Even if you can’t get as much as the sentence as you want to, at least catch a word that will let them know you got something, “Did you say ‘vacation’?” This shows that you were paying attention and caught something about the topic, just not all of it.
Listen at different speeds
In real time, speech sounds very fast and all connected. Many YouTube videos will let you adjust the playback settings so choose a video with an Indian English speaker and experiment listening at slower speeds. This will make it easier to hear how they are pronouncing specific sounds, their connections (or not) between words, which syllables they’re stressing in words, and intonation pattern. Then return to normal speed. It can be helpful to realize that you’re not missing out on as much as you thought you were in real time.
Have conversations for fun, not just business
The brain adapts to differences and recognizes patterns easily. The more exposure you have to a way of speaking that’s different or new to you, the easier it will become to understand. Reducing anxiety is key, so put yourself in situations that are low-stakes, no pressure to understand, before you put yourself in high-stakes stressful situations. There are a lot of online conversation partner sites to learn other languages. You could join one and have friendly conversations with Indian English speakers (or any accent) even if you’re not trying to learn a new language. Relax, have fun meeting someone new, and focus on the meaning rather than the speech.