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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Mt Holyoke chapter.

Communication is a skill that everyone deems important and great leaders are almost always described to be ‘great communicators’ as well, but what does that term mean? Is it an appraisal of their choice of words or for the way in which they deliver their message? Despite being an avid reader and yet another aspiring writer, I’ve come to the realization that words are not always all that essential to communication. But then again, that’s common knowledge. We are all aware that there are a multitude of ways through which we can express ourselves: facial expressions, body language, art, touch, music, and even silence. The list is never-ending. What has never been considered, however, is the possibility that sometimes language can actually obscure our ability to communicate.

Everyone in my family tree is rooted in India, and I, myself, have spent three-fourths of my life within its boundaries. I reside in a multilingual country and am used to being surrounded by people who speak a second or third dialect that I am unfamiliar with. Nearly all my Indian friends and I consider ourselves to be proficient English speakers, yet, I’ve come to notice that it is possible that the world is not as confident of our proficiency as we are. I came to this realization when one of my English teachers, a New Zealander, commented on how frustrating it was to correct the ‘Indian syntax,’ and ‘Indian-English’ in our essays. Of course, I had always assumed that there would be some differences in the English spoken in different countries, but given that I had never had any trouble switching from books written by American, British, Asian, or African writers, I was surprised that the difference in Indian syntax was so prominent, and even considered ‘wrong’ by my teacher— and many others like her. The fact is that there is a lot of discrimination with regard to language across the world and the same language is considered superior in some countries, and less impressive in others. What surprises me most, however, is the discrimination within English speakers in our own country: for which, I believe, classism is the only explanation.

Recently, I had just finished watching the Bollywood movie ‘Queen,’ and ended up discussing the work of Kangana Ranaut, the leading actor of the movie, with a friend over the phone. My friend commented that she was not impressed by her ‘versatility’ as an actress because, while she could see her playing ‘poor-people roles,’ she could not picture her playing the middle-class or rich westernized roles that other mainstream Bollywood actresses are able to portray. When I prodded her as to what made her think a national award winning actress could not pretend to be us for a couple of months, she replied: “It’s her accent, yaar, she sounds like she’s from a village.”

Kangana Ranaut is one of the highest-paid actresses in India and perhaps one of the only popular Hindi film actresses who doesn’t come from a lineage of Bollywood stars, fresh out of a beauty pageant, or with a rich history of money-making collaborations with the famous, male Khan’s who rule Bollywood (I’m reserving my judgment of her as an actor, and choosing to ignore the complications of her private life). Instead, she comes from a remote village in Himachal Pradesh where most people do not speak English, watch English movies, and may have never witnessed the increasingly westernized life of India’s big, but uncommon cities— and the only reason she graces us on the silver screen today is due to a rare combination of talent, hard work, and the luck that is required for any artist to make it big. Today, the growth she has shown— or rather— the changes that she has made in order to fit in, is remarkable. She is fashion-conscious, forward-thinking, and speaks English with the vocabulary of a native speaker, but absent of the same level of confidence. There is nothing wrong with her grammar, nothing wrong with her syntax, nothing wrong with her pronunciation. What people have a problem with is her accent.

Given the abundance of native languages in India that influence our English accents, there is no such thing as an ‘Indian accent,’ and yet, as a community, we either ostracize people for having a ‘village accent’ or for having a ‘fake’ westernized accent. For Kangana, the criticism began with the former and ended with the latter. Towards the beginning of her career, her unpolished English accent was made fun of, and later, her perfect— but now ‘non-Indian’ accent was criticized by people with nothing better to do. Another Bollywood actress was met with similar criticism: Priyanka Chopra, who recently forayed into the realms of American television, was taunted by viewers because of the ‘fake’ American accent she puts on while working in the States (to be fair, she could work on developing a more authentic fake accent). The only explanation I can find for this conundrum is that we Indians are supremely confused. British imperialism has left us with an inferiority complex that does not make sense to our inherent superiority complex— a result of the extreme nationalism present within our country. Indians must, by all means, be able to speak proper English— because otherwise they will be considered illiterate, but they must do so with a perfect Indian accent (which is unattainable, because there is no such thing) unless they want to be viewed as puppets of the West.

In my view, the world would be a much less confusing and sincere place if we were all accepting of other people as they were and did not police things like the way they speak or the way they look— because until then, humanity seems to be doomed to place judgments and determine the social strata of other human beings on the basis of their accents, color, or any other difference that keeps us from resembling a population of zombies who think, speak, and behave in the exact same way.


Image Credit: 1, 2, 3

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Mount Holyoke College is a gender-inclusive, historically women's college in South Hadley, MA.