For speakers of Indian languages
Pronunciation for speakers of Indian English
AIM: to raise awareness of common difficulties with English pronunciation for speakers of languages of the Indian subcontinent.
- Indian English is a recognised variety of English spoken by many in the Indian subcontinent as well as in the Indian diaspora around the world.
- This variety has its own distinct pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical features. However, speakers of other varieties of English without previous exposure to the variety may experience some difficulties in interaction with speakers of Indian English.
- Indian English itself comprises a number of sub-varieties, influenced by the first language or languages spoken in different regions. The large number of indigenous languages spoken across the subcontinent leads to a high degree of variation in the use of English.
- In this resource, the term Indian English will be used to describe features common to the speech of people with different first languages from the subcontinent, but not every example will relate to all speakers.
- This section identifies some of the common difficulties for Indian speakers in the pronunciation of English; however, it is not a comprehensive guide.
- One of the key issues making Indian English difficult for Australian English listeners to understand is speed. Listeners commonly felt that Indian speakers talk ‘too quickly’ and that if their speech was slower, it would be easier to understand.
- Speaking more slowly gives the listener more time to process speech, and become familiar with some of the differences between the speaker’s Indian English and their own variety.
- In a medical interview, the patient is likely to be more focused on WHAT the doctor says than HOW he or she says it; if the doctor slows his or her rate of speech, this can help patients understand clearly and not be confused by differences in speech.
- Indian languages tend to have fewer vowel sounds than English. Therefore, it is important for speakers of Indian languages communicating in English to be aware of the differences between certain vowel sounds which may affect the meaning of English words.
- These are some common vowel pairs that may cause problems for Indian English speakers:
When a language doesn’t have a certain sound but something quite similar, the natural pattern for the learner is to replace the new sound with the one they are more familiar with. However, if both sounds exist in the new language, there can be confusion as to which sound or word is actually intended. For example:
The vowel sound in words like ‘goat’ in Australian English (and other varieties) is a diphthong (moving from one vowel to another within the same syllable), rather than a monophthong (single sound) as it is in many Indian languages. Compare these words:
- ‘loan’ – ‘lawn’ – ‘long’ Play
- Similarly, the vowel sound in words like ‘face’ contain a diphthong in Australian English
- ‘late’ – ‘let’ Play
- ‘pain’ – ‘pen’ Play
- ‘world’, ‘word’, ‘hurt’, ‘heard’, ‘worse’Play
- ‘arrive’, ‘consider’, ‘sister’ Play
- The vowel sound in words like ‘nurse’ may be difficult, as it doesn’t exist in many Indian languages
- Unstressed syllables in English words often have a ‘reduced’ vowel, known as ‘schwa’ (written as [ə] in the International Phonetic Alphabet): e.g. ‘comma’. It is not usually pronounced the way it is spelt.
- The sounds here are the same, even though they are spelt with different letters.
Some consonant sounds are pronounced differently in English from Indian languages and this can be confusing for listeners. For example:
- to produce the sound [v] the top teeth should actually touch the bottom lip – if they don’t, it sounds like [w]
- Some Indian English speakers (incorrectly) replace the sound [f] as in ‘fit’ with the sound [p] as in ‘pit’
- ‘fool’ – ‘pool’ Play
- ‘fast’ – ‘vast’ Play
- ‘measles’ Play
- ‘shoe’ – ‘Sue’ Play
- And others replace the same sound [f] with [v]
- Some speakers replace the consonant [z] as in ‘zoo’ with the sound <j> as in ‘judge’.
- Some speakers confuse the sounds in ‘she’ and ‘see’
Most Australian English speakers aspirate the sounds [p, t, k] at the beginning of words – this means a small ‘puff’ of air is released with it, like producing a small [h]. Adding this puff of air will make you easier to understand.
‘came’ – ‘game’; ‘pleading’ – ‘bleeding’; ‘true’ – ‘drew’ Play
(Think: ‘c[h]ame’, ‘p[h]leading’, ‘t[h]rue’)
- ‘came’ – ‘game’; ‘pleading’ – ‘bleeding’; ‘true’ – ‘drew’ Play
- The sounds represented by the letter combination ‘th’ are difficult for speakers of many languages, particularly since there are two different sounds that correspond to this spelling:
- ‘thigh’, ‘bath’, ‘teeth’, ‘thought’, ‘thyroid’ [voiceless] Play
- ‘thy’, ‘bathe’, ‘although’, ‘gather’ [voiced] Play
- These sounds should be produced with vibration between the tip of the tongue and the back of the teeth, as distinct from [d] and [t] in English.
Some speakers of Indian English leave out the sounds <y> and <w> at the beginning of words, e.g.
- ‘yellow’, ‘want’ Play
- Some speakers leave out the sound <h> at the beginning of a word, e.g.
- ‘hospital’, ‘humour’, ‘human’, ‘hot' Play
Other areas which differ between Indian English and Australian English are word stress, sentence stress, phrasing and intonation. Go to the relevant pages to find out more.
1. Word stress
- Indian English speakers tend to stress the first syllable in a word, where Australian English speakers stress different syllables, depending on the word.
It is helpful to listen to native speakers of other varieties of English and notice where they put the stress in certain words. Also a dictionary should indicate which syllable is stressed, often with the mark ` before the stressed syllable.
- ‘ho`tel’, ‘de`tain’, ‘pla`cebo’, ‘antibi`otic’
- ‘John is one of my `colleagues.’ – ‘He’s very co`llegial.’
- ‘I don’t have any `record of your appointment.’ – ‘The doctor re`corded the symptoms.’
- ‘The patient has de`veloped severe symptoms.’ – ‘Miss Smith’s develop`mental history is quite complex.’
- Use the word stress activity to practise this with medical words.
2. Sentence stress
- In some Indian languages, stress is associated with a low pitch, whereas in most English dialects, stressed syllables are generally pronounced with a higher pitch. Thus, when some Indian speakers talk, they appear to be putting the stress on the wrong syllables, or accentuating all the syllables of a long English word.
- Use the contrastive stress and more contrastive stress activities to practise sentence stress.
- Falling intonation plays an important function in English and is used to indicate finality. For speakers of Indian English, it is common to use level intonation pattern at the end of statements instead of a distinct fall. This feature may interfere with smooth turn-taking. The listener may think that there is more to come and that the speaker is about to continue.
- Speakers of Australian English tend to use more variety in their intonation patterns than speakers of Indian English, which can sound ‘flat’ in comparison. Intonation is important and plays a part in establishing rapport, expressing empathy as well as achieving success in doctor-patient interaction overall. Speech lacking sentence stress in combination with monotonous, so-called ‘flat’ pitch gives the impression that the doctor is bored or not interested in a patient’s story.
- Use the intonation and question intonation activities to practise English intonation patterns.
4. Phrasing and pausing
- Some speakers of Indian English apply their first language patterns and therefore tend to break a sentence into much smaller phrases, inserting extra pauses in places Australian English speakers wouldn’t expect. This makes the sentence more difficult to follow.
- In addition, how speakers of Indian English group words together and divide up information can seem quite unusual to speakers of Australian English, not corresponding to the thought groups in a sentence. As a result, the message can be misunderstood or misinterpreted by a listener.
- Use the phrasing and more phrasing activities to practise phrasing.
There is a wide variety of resources available to help speakers of Indian English develop their pronunciation, including the references below. Focused practice, ideally with feedback from a teacher or trained native speaker of Australian English, will help address some of these issues for speakers of Indian languages and improve their pronunciation of English.
Bansal, Ram Krishna (1990) The pronunciation of English in India. In S Ramsaran (ed.) Studies in the Pronunciation of English: A Commemorative Volume in Honour of A. C. Gimson (pp. 219–30). London: Routledge.
Gargesh, Ravinder (2004) Indian English: Phonology. In E W Schneider, K Burridge, B Kortmann & R Mesthrie (eds.) A Handbook of Varieties of English, Vol 1: Phonology (pp. 993–1002). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Pandey, Pramod K (1994) On a description of the phonology of Indian English. In R K Agnihotri & A L Khanna (eds.) Second Language Acquisition. Socio-cultural and Linguistic Aspects of English in India. Research in Applied Linguistics, Vol. 1 (pp. 198–207). Delhi: Sage.
Wells, John C (1982) Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wiltshire, Caroline R (2005) The “Indian English” of Tibeto-Burman language speakers. English World-Wide 26, 275–300.