On Mother Tongue Influence: Getting it Right with my Name

In the year 2012, working on my mother tongue influence was a priority consideration. I aspired to improve the English I spoke that so much smelled of my mother’s milk. It was important for me to come out of the spell of my mother tongue and reclaim English the way the British or an American processed it with flair. I made it, through a lot of humiliations, not to become a British or an American, but someone who can speak English without any regional inflexion. I am happy that today my TOEFL and IELTS speaking sessions do attest to my English speaking abilities besides numerous other native speakers of the language.

I pronounced my name as “Leenda” and not “Linda” or “Indeea” and not “India.” My then team leader, Bradley, was a well-meaning manager. But when he laughed at my poor pronunciation, it did hurt me a lot. Maybe that was his strategy to invite everyone to laugh at me so that I took the voice and accent training seriously. Once Bradley corrected me when I said, “I want to say you something” instead of “I want to tell you something.” Needless to say, the “tell” was often an interchange between “tail” and “tale.”

I must mention that I was always a loudmouth if that is the word you use for women who mean spade a spade, loud and clear. So with that kind of an attitude and a rebellious soul, one day, I took the Oxford dictionary to the office. I had to prove that it was “/ˈɡɑːdɪən/” for “guardian” and the quality analyst who rated the callers on their pronunciation must review my score for better. Everyone laughed at me. This time, it was another team leader who we called Jude. Jude was a kind man, and so although he didn’t ridicule me the way other’s did, he was very complicit.

In 2010, I moved to Hyderabad from Kolkata and joined Bank of America. The experience was totally the opposite. I was talking to native Americans and counselling them on their mortgage repayment. Not only I impacted the highest return by counselling them in their most wretched situation, but I also gained a lot of love and recognition from everyone I spoke with. Here, Radhika, my operations manager in BoA, can testify how I always topped in customer’s recall of having spoken with a legit English speaker.

When I was in BoA, Jude was working at HSBC, Kolkata. We happened to connect over LinkedIn. We also got to talk. It was then, Jude expressed an apology that I never expected. I always admired Jude as much as I admired Bradley and envied their linguistic skills; how they spoke so fast like those white newsreaders on FOX. Jude confided referring the “Oxford dictionary incident, “I remember you till date because of your daring to prove to the native speakers that /ˈɡɑːdɪən/ was not a mispronunciation—that you were working on to improve your language based on the resource you had.”

That recognition was due for long, although much forgotten given that my performance at BoA garnered a lot of appreciation. I had tears in my eyes when Jude broke open the long-kept silence around the mispronunciation of the word “guardian.” I feared if I would be forever stereotyped the way Bengalis have always been stereotyped the way they spoke in English with lots of vowels and typical native emotions.

So, how did I improve my English pronunciation and get rid of my mother-tongue influence? Earlier, I would mostly drag my vowels the way Bengalis would emphasize on the vowel articulation. This time, I dropped every vowel sound. For example, I learnt that I am Linda and not Leenda after I practised pronouncing my name without stressing too much on the vowel nestled between “L” and “N.” Basically, it was “L + N + D + A.” Once this became my habit, I scanned my entire vocabulary, existing and new, with it.

Like humans, vowels do have a purpose. Without them, I sounded more like a consonant human; my pronunciation lacked a certain softness induced by the vowels. Very naturally, I decided to return the vowels to the words they belonged to because separation is a very unkind thing. This time, my pronunciation got better with the re-introduction of the vowels. I could proudly confirm with my colleagues that I sounded perfectly alright if I pronounced “Indian” as a bi-syllabic word instead of a tri-syllabic. Much later in 2017, my British landlady exclaimed, “Oh, you speak so well, you don’t sound like an Indian!” I replied, “I appreciate your mother tongue influence, the hangover of 200 years of domination!

Today, I don’t care for mother-tongue influence or father-tongue or the white-colonial tongue. Though this train of learning intends to cover a journey beyond my lifetime, I am proud just to have a voice. If anything, I care for communication that is easy and delivers my objective, makes my clients happy. I am truly blessed to be a brown Indian English speaking Bengali woman writing books and articles in English referenced by English scholars across literature, supply chain, Industry 4.0, and others. Like Oprah Winfrey says, I am full, and I can share with you my experience, help you overcome challenges.

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