Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri's new book, In Other Words, talks about the issues she faced as a child raised in a home where Bengali was spoken, while being educated in English. The book was written in Italian, Lahiri's third language. You can read an excerpt of her work, translated into English, here.
Listen to an interview with the author here.
Your native language background will affect your American English in terms of pronunciation, intonation, grammar and vocabulary. Whether you first spoke Hindi, Gujarati, Telugu, Bengali, Tamil, Punjabi or another language, what you heard and learned first shapes your phonological development (your sound system for listening and speaking). Indian English is a dialect of English and it might have been the first English you heard and spoke. The patterns of Indian English will also affect your American English pronunciation and intonation.
Here are some things you might expect if you are a speaker of Indian English:
Pronunciation: You may have difficulty with the w and v sounds. Your "th" sounds may sound like t or d. You may have trouble with the sounds at the ends of words, especially b, d, g, ng, and z. Your r sounds might be rolled at the beginnings of words and might sound like "uh" in the middle and at the ends of words. You might use pure vowels "ah, o, oo, ay and ee" and have trouble with American short vowels and diphthongs (gliding from one vowel to another).
Intonation: While you are likely able to understand American Intonation and how different patterns change the meaning of a sentence, you might speak with intonation that is difficult for the American listener to understand. This could include stressing the incorrect word in a sentence or syllable in a word.
Rate: You might feel that speaking quickly is a more American style, or that you will be perceived as more intelligent if you speak faster. In reality, speaking too quickly can lead to more pronunciation and intonation errors. More important than a fast rate is using appropriate suprasegmentals, such as linking, blending and liaisons between words.
Understanding what your accent is comprised of is the first step in making changes to increase how well you are understood when speaking American English. Take a free screening for information about your accent here.
One of the most common errors for those learning the American accent is the vowel in the words it and him, referred to on this site as “Vowel I" or /ɪ/. This sound is frequently confused with the vowel in the words eat and seem, “Vowel ee or /i/.”
These two sounds are similar, but Vowel ee /i/ has a more exaggerated smile posture for the lips, and the front of the tongue is slightly higher in the mouth. Vowel ee /i/ is a tense vowel, meaning that the muscles in the face are engaged. Vowel I /ɪ/ is a lax vowel, meaning the lips and face need to be relaxed. Practice going from one sound to the next to feel the different postures for your lips and tongue. Use the video to help you.
One way to solidify the distinction is to practice with minimal pairs, or words that differ only by this vowel sound. Listen to the following sets of words, and practice making a clear contrast between vowel ee /i/ and vowel ɪ.
For even more practice, use these short phrases which contrast the ee and I vowel sounds.
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