Indians are a fairly successful immigrant population in the United States.
They make up the second largest group by nationality of immigrants to America, are typically the top recipients of the H-1B temporary work visa, and form the second-largest group of international students. At least 80% of Indian immigrant adults have a bachelor’s degree or more, and nearly 16% of startups in Silicon Valley have an Indian co-founder.
However, many Indians have found that a pronounced accent can work against immigrants trying to climb the corporate ladder – prompting them to look at ways to sound more American.
“It’s easier to change my accent to be more understandable, so I don’t have to repeat myself multiple times,” said one Indian immigrant who started working at a fintech company in New Jersey this year and asked not to be named.
He said is considering modifying his accent due to his job, especially since most communication during the pandemic happens over the phone or video calls. “At this moment, I’m definitely considering [accent coaching]. I’ve been watching YouTube videos.”
India already has a large English language training market, which has in recent years seen the entry of several Ed-tech outfits hoping to cash in on the demand. But the bulk of these focus simply on ensuring proficiency in the language. Many immigrants to the US find that speaking English well isn’t enough – they need to sound American.
Researchers find that job candidates with non-native American accents are less likely to be recommended for management positions, and entrepreneurs with strong non-native accents are also less likely to receive funding for new ventures. The default native — or neutral — accent is called “General American.”
Rebecca Linquist, an accent coach who works exclusively with executives and aspiring executives in Silicon Valley, says that even if Indian professionals are understandable, they can be misinterpreted or misread.
Accent coaching seeks to eliminate that communication gap. Different from spoken English classes, accent coaching aims to help people who speak English using the sounds or linguistic rules of their native language.
While it’s difficult to objectively evaluate accents, a 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that at least 26% of Americans are bothered by immigrants who speak little to no English. Data says that immigrants from India are more likely to be proficient in English when compared to other foreign-born immigrants: very often, Indians code-switch to act or talk more like people around them, which can make accent slips more obvious. For example, many Indians have difficulty rolling their R’s in the way Americans do, which means that words with an R either preceding or following a vowel – like “water” or “brand” – are often mispronounced.
In Linquist’s experience, native speakers of South Indian languages like Tamil and Telugu have a harder time rolling their Rs in comparison to native speakers of North Indian languages like Punjabi, Gujarati, and Urdu. Indians are the second-largest group that she works with, following Chinese people. Her clientele is mostly male.
“The goal should be for people to immediately understand what you’re saying, and not have to draw from context or body language. Even if people understand you, you might not have their full attention,” she said.
According to senior HR leader NN Srinivas, who has over 15 years of hiring experience in the US, strong accents can hinder professional growth. Employees can be overlooked if they’re unable to communicate effectively, or if company executives in their workplace have subconscious biases.
“Does coaching or training accelerate growth? Yes. It helps employees embrace this culture,” said Srinivas. He recommends either getting formal training, or watching CNN to practice a more neutral accent. Many companies also recommend employees, especially senior employees on the executive track, to accent coaches like Linquist, and pay for their training.
Despite laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to protect immigrants from discrimination based on their accent, linguistic profiling is a pervasive issue. Potential employers or clients might let their implicit bias affect their decisions.
According to EEOC rules, an employer is only allowed to base an employment decision on accent if the job requires “effective oral communication” in English, like in teaching, customer service or telemarketing. The EEOC also prohibits “speak-English-only” rules in the workplace unless there is an emergency or a cooperative work assignment in which workers need to communicate in a common language.
According to research by Dr. Tej Bhatia, professor of linguistics and director of South Asian languages at Syracuse University, accent discrimination is a prevalent issue that takes a toll on immigrants’ mental health, and is a source of trauma. In 2009, a Vietnamese immigrant shot and killed students at an immigrant English language class in Binghamton, New York — his motive is widely believed to be the discrimination he faced due to his poor and accented English.
Speech and language pathologist Dr. Amee Shah, who is also Director of the Cross-cultural Speech, Language, and Acoustics Lab at Stockton University, believes that people should modify their accents only if it actively affects their communication skills.
“Just telling people to fix their accents is unfair, and can be very demeaning,” she said. “This process should be about educating and empowering a person, rather than trying to fix them.”
There is still a lot of stigma and shame associated with having a heavy accent, even within speakers of the same language. An accent immediately stereotypes a person based on their race, class, and geography, and toning it down can feel like a rejection of one’s identity in favour of another constructed identity.
Linquist has had clients break down in sessions, especially if speaking in soft and subdued tones — and not raising their voice — is culturally ingrained within them. A board of directors once hired her for an employee without consulting him first, and he stormed out of the meeting.
There are also positive biases associated with accents: having a certain accent can open doors. One of Linquist’s oldest and most consistent clients is an Indian man who has been training with her for six years. Even though his accent sounds neutral, he attends classes with Linquist to workshop YouTube videos that he records and uploads for work.
Shah evaluates a client’s speech to determine whether their accent really needs work, or if communication can be clearer through nonverbal cues like body language. She also recommends cultural competence training for employers and co-workers to ensure that clients don’t feel pressured into “correcting” their accent.
Immigrants in the past have reported feeling conscious of their English accents, and have been made to choose between coaching or cultural exclusion, but both Shah and Srinivas believe that corporate culture has not only become more diverse, but also inclusive.
“The good news is that people and companies are moving away from the need to assimilate, and now there’s a lot of emphasis on diversity and inclusion,” said Shah.
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