3 pronunciation challenges for speakers from India

Where to begin so large and complex a topic? Let’s start with some facts:

  • In India alone, there are over 1500 languages spoken, and over 2000 dialects.

  • 1.4 per cent of the total Australian population is made up of people born in India.

  • Some of the many principal Indian languages spoken in Australia include Hindi, Gurjarati, Punjabi, Marathi, Tamil, Telagu and Sindhi.

  • India was a British colony until 1947, and English is still an official language (although Hindi is the national language spoken by most Indians).

  • English is the language of instruction in many cities and schools.

  • India has the 3rd largest population of people speaking English as their first language (after the US and the UK).

Some of the most eloquent English speakers and writers of all time hail from India, including of course, Mahatma Gandhi.

With such a diversity of languages, it is difficult to make generalisations about pronunciation challenges faced by Indians speaking English in Australia. However, the following differences are often (though by no means always!) observed when working with clients born in India:

1. Devoicing: People from India sometimes pronounce:

  • “z” as “s”;

  • “v” as “f”;

  • “b” as “p”;

  • “d” as “t”; and

  • “g” as “k”.

These pairs of sounds are very similar to each other: for example, the only difference between an “s” and a “z” is that the voice is turned on for “z” and off for “s”. For this reason, these differences are often referred to as “devoicing”.

2. Sound differences: When speaking English, some people from India pronounce:

  • voiceless “th” (as in thing) as “t” with a puff of air;

  • voiced “th” (as in this or that) as a “t” or “d”;

  • “w” as “v”;

  • “p”, “t” and “k” at the start of words without the puff of air typically heard from an native English speaker in Australia, England or the US;

  • vowels further forward in the mouth than they are produced by a native English speaker speaking in an Australian accent;

  • “t” and “d” with the tongue further back in the mouth (sometimes even curled back, in the so-called retroflex position);

  • “zh” (as in vision or measure) as a “z” or “j”; and

  • some clusters of consonants with epenthesis, e.g. “e-street” for “street” or by adding in an unstressed vowel, e.g. “filam” for film.

3. Prosody differences:

  • tress: In many Indian languages, word stress is secondary to the rhythm (often a long-short pattern). English has complicated rules of word and sentence stress that do not always follow a predictable pattern.

  • Intonation:

  • In many Indian languages, a rise in pitch signifies emphasis. Statements and questions both follow a rise-fall pattern of intonation, which gives rise to the melodious “sing-song” quality often heard from fluent English speakers from India.

  • In English, a rise in pitch is most often used to indicate a yes/no question or to signal uncertainty. Most statements end with a fall in pitch, particularly when emphasising a point, and a fall is also common at the end of “wh” questions (e.g. what, when, where, why, how”).

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