I grew up in India immersing myself in the English language almost as much as I did my mother tongue. Although English was termed my second language in school, and later when I came to the US I was told I was a non-native speaker of English, the language never felt secondary or alien to me.
I’ve been told several times in the past two decades here in the US that I have a lilting cadence to my English speech that makes it exotic. I never heard my accent nor noticed the variations in the way I modulated certain sounds and syllables. I was too busy learning the American idioms and adding new vocabulary to my repertoire.
Until recently, that is. A few months ago, I observed a certain shift to my listening. It suddenly dawned on me why I say some words differently than a native English speaker in the US. It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I learned speaking English in India, which although retains few traces of the British English after all these years, still favors the British turn of phrase and pronunciation.
It has everything to do with the fact that my mother tongue, Telugu, is a non-phonetic language. That means, unlike in English, what you see written on the page is exactly how you pronounce the words. There are no two ways of saying the same word. Telugu has over 50+ letters in its alphabet, so there’s no chance for confusion. The same is true with most Indian languages.
In an Indian language, not all words have emphatic syllables in them. If you need a particular syllable in a word to be stressed harder, then you write it a certain way that leaves no doubt of the pronunciation. Not so in English.
Each and every word in English has at least one syllable that is emphasized in speech, even if it’s a one-syllable word like “a.” The syllable you choose to emphasize, the way you articulate it, the inflection you place on the sound… all these figure into your accent.
I realized that, as a native speaker of Indian languages, I sometimes neglect to enunciate a certain syllable in an English word because I don’t see the stress highlighted in the written word. For instance, take the word banana. The middle syllable na is stressed harder and stretched longer than the rest but it looks in writing as do the rest of the syllables. The word is not spelled bannaana to focus the stress. No book or teacher can teach this; it’s a matter of listening and emulating.
After this epiphany, I’m listening to spoken English with keener ears. Words and sounds that were mundane before reveal new personalities and interesting facets to me at every turn. My ears perk up at once-familiar words that now tease me with a host of possibilities.
Does this mean I’m going to work at losing my “accent?” No, because that modulation is part of who I am. Will I stop confusing the heck out of my children by pronouncing “year” as “ear” because I forget to accentuate the beginning “ya” sound? Probably not.
I am, however, very much looking forward to this phase of my relationship with the English language. A phase where I get to acquaint myself with it all over again.