There’s just no pleasing the native speaker

This is a cover of a popular Hindi song from the early 90s whose title translates into the unwieldy ‘first intoxication’ in English. Perhaps a simpler “first love” captures the sentiment more effectively.  The singer, however, is a Saudi Arabian who does not speak Hindi and sings the song acapella accompanied only by sounds created through his voice and body. Even if you don’t speak Hindi; even if you’re not clued into the cultural context of this song, it’s hard to deny that it is sung in a wonderfully endearing and sweet way. The sort of way that makes you want to listen to the song again and explore Alaa Wardi’s other videos on YouTube.

But I have a confession to make.

When I listened to the song for the first time and indeed whenever I hear the song, amidst Wardi’s astonishing talent, something else rings in my ears. I feel guilty every time I feel a slight cringe coming on when I hear Wardi’s peculiarly un-Indian pronunciation of some Hindi sounds. I can’t, however, deny the feeling …  the unsaid cringe of the native speaker.

It’s intriguing because Wardi gets complex retroflex sounds correct but replaces the following sounds with what I suppose are Arabic equivalents.

  1. थी  (was) /wss/: This is an aspirated dental sound in Hindi but is pronounced as an unaspirated dental sound in the song which happens to be an entirely different Hindi sound – ती.
  2. प्या (love) /ɾ/: This is an alveolar tap in Hindi but becomes a very pronounced velar or uvular sound in the song.
  3. मेरे (my) /ɾ/: Ditto. I suppose Arabic generally articulates /r/ further back in the mouth.
  4. खुमा  (stupor)  /kʰ/: An aspirated velar sound in Hindi is transformed into what sounds like a uvular sound.
  5. बेक़रार  (impatient ) /k/: An unaspirated velar sound in Hindi is articulated further back in throat with a little bit of air in this rendition.

Last year, a Chinese friend introduced me to someone who could help me with conversation practice. This guy was a bored Chinese engineer in a remote Mongolian mining outpost with loads of time on his hands. The idea was that we would help each other with Chinese and English over Skype.  While I understood that the subtleties of feedback and error correction would be lost on him, I was not prepared for the barrage of correction.  Interestingly, he seemed to understand nearly everything I said but he would still correct almost every single word. The feedback was rarely grammatical, seldom about word choice and nearly always on pronunciation. Granted, Chinese pronunciation is a tough nut to crack – but I was making myself understood and getting appropriate responses. It was as if he heard the error first and the word second. It was a doomed relationship from the very start. Later, whenever I tried my Chinese out on unsuspecting acquaintances and strangers (despite their surprised 你的中文很好呀!and other words of praise), I’d wonder what they really heard.  How much effort were they expending to suppress the cringe of the native speaker?

And then my thoughts drifted to learners. A lot of Indians work in knowledge services organizations where they interact directly with overseas clients (usually from the English speaking world) or with overseas colleagues in cross-border teams.  Time and again, in a range of companies, I’ve witnessed a certain type of feedback directed at an employee in India. It will usually arrive in the form of some vague word starting with C such as “Anita lacks – confidence, credibility, conviction, clarity etc”. But, dig a little deeper and ask some incisive questions and you’ll discover that these are just politically correct euphemisms for someone not liking Anita’s accent.

It feels like the odds are stacked against non-native speakers. Regardless of the effort they put into developing their L2 ability, native speaker perceptions may continue to deem them flawed communicators primarily because of their pronunciation. This causes people to believe that speaking with an American accent or a British accent is tantamount to better language skills. I heard that recently from a participant who remarked “why does better have to mean an accent that is less Indian and more firang!”  I can’t dispute that and I myself am probably a poor model to learners with a distinctly un-Indian voice. Mine is the result of a strange globe trotting childhood. A lot of my peers in the field have very affected, almost theatrical RP accents. I wonder what the impact of this is on learners – that your English teacher who is an Indian, has never lived anywhere but India, and has probably never left these shores, speaks like Miss Marples. And yet try as they might … there’s no pleasing the native speaker who experiences the unsaid cringe and voices it in some euphemistic or devious form.

Instead of targeting perfection in pronunciation, should we prepare our learners for the reality of working with native speakers? Explicitly point out that they will always sound different to the native ear and have them instead focus their energies on strategies and techniques that will make their communication more precise, more skilled at communicating complex information and abstract ideas, and better at engaging in productive dialogues.

Back to Alaa Wardi, I reckon this guy is incredible. I am in love with two of his Arabic songs, Risala Ela and a cover of Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram’s Fi Hagat. You definitely don’t need to know a language to hear talent. And when you do know a language – like native speaker type of knowing – it’s hard not to hear the errors. We may not talk about it but maybe it’s something we should confront more openly.


5 thoughts on “There’s just no pleasing the native speaker

  1. The song is lovely and the comments really interesting. I guess pronunciation is a whole mindset and encompasses culture and attitude; which may be a partial explanation….

    Interestingly enough, Greeks are always so delighted with people attempting to speak Greek that they rarely comment on accent in a negative way,

    But I have noted judgments about individuals which did not make use of accent but commented or joked about a non-Greek attempting to speak Greek in a patronizing way. I wonder if accent is related.

    Is it something to with the languages of power? Or ownership of the code?




  2. I think pronunciation ‘errors’ tend to be more jarring to the native speaker, even more than grammatical ones, like you said. But taking Marisa’s point about culture and attitude forward – is one more likely to ‘turn a deaf ear’, or even not notice altogether these mispronunciations so to speak if one is more embracing as a human being? So is there a direct correlation between how one is as a human being and as a native speaker?


      • Hi Adi

        I don’t currently blog but have been thinking about starting one for some time now. I think this month or the next maybe? Will keep you posted on that.

        And you’re quite right about us working in similar contexts, which is what interested me in your profile and led me to follow you on your blog, twitter and linkedin!

        I am excited to add you to my PLN and hoping to stay connected!



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