01/30/2012 02:54 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Minding Our Language: Indian Accents

Earlier this week, Joe Biden, vice president of the United States and a man not known for his verbal subtlety, apparently made fun of Indian accents at a speech in New Hampshire. Heather Timmons of the New York Times' blog India Ink was puzzled by the lack of a protest and asked why it was not considered offensive to make fun of Indian, as opposed to say, Chinese accents. It's even more puzzling because offense has been taken at the highest levels in the past. In the 1960s, the Indian government banned the movie The Party which featured Peter Sellers trying a horrendous 'Indian' accent.

Is it possible that we Indians have finally learned to rejoice in our accents? The latest census claimed that 125 million Indians speak English, obviously with varying degrees of felicity. English is actually one of two official languages in India (Hindi is the other). It is the mother tongue of various communities in India. The children of Indians who have married out of their linguistic communities have grown up with English as their family language. English is often the default language of government and business.
The adoption of English, a language seen to be equally foreign to all of India's 22 major language groups, was a political compromise aimed at national unity. Yet, the fact that the newly-independent country adopted the language of the departing British colonists testifies to the affection for the language. C. Rajagopalachari, Gandhi's comrade in the independence movement, had even extolled English as the gift of Saraswati to Indians -- Saraswati being the Hindu goddess of learning and language.

Six decades later, the ability of Indians to speak English is a huge asset. A common language has lubricated dealings in commerce and technology in all spheres. Outsourcing is only a small part of the integration into the global economy. Still, talking to an Indian in a call center has become the hallmark of the globalized experience for many in the West. Considering that most of us call the 800-number in a state of frustration, the difference in accent only makes the experience more alienating.

Recognizing this, Indian companies have been working on 'accent neutralization.' Employees are taught how to speak with a generic North American accent, intonation and rhythm. Some find this practice distasteful, but the young people flocking to these jobs accept it as part of the deal. Increasingly, though, the more established firms are focusing on clarity and comprehension for a good customer experience without regard to accent. My friends working at call centers tell me that some callers even enjoy hearing Indian accents.

A few centuries ago, Indians considered the potato, an alien lump arriving on their shores on foreign ships. They decided it was good to eat, but only after adding spices and festooning it with sprigs of cilantro. Indians have changed forever the way English is spoken. They do slow down and go easy on the retroflexes when speaking to outsiders. But they know that the Indian accent is here to stay. English is as much their language as it is Queen Elizabeth's. Or Joe Biden's.