Vox: Prejudices in Sound

09 Jun

by Rajshree Solanki

So what’s in a voice?

Does your demeanor change when you hear on the other end of the phone a person with an Indian accent helping your computer, banking, or other issues?

An Indian Call Center. Image transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:IngerAlHaosului using CommonsHelper.

Indian people are fully aware of what their accents sound like. Because of that, my dad chose to not teach my sister and me our ethnic language. He thought speaking our language would have an adverse effect on our lives. He felt an accent can only hold us back in careers or other opportunities. Teachers at my elementary school had told my dad that speaking another language in the home only confused me and caused delays in reading comprehension. If only my dad did not listen to them.

So what’s in a voice?

My voice is nasally. Yankee-ish with an occasionally tinge of a Southern accent.

My sister’s voice is smoky and heavy like that of old Long Island mother.

If you were to hear our voices, you wouldn’t even be able tell we were Indian Americans.

Prior to moving to the DC area, I was looking for a place to live and responded to an ad in the paper. When I got on the phone with the guy renting out the room, we chatted about the neighbors and the location.

“A lot of younger hipsters are moving into the area,” he said.

“That sounds great!” I said, looking forward to my move.

“Can I tell you how refreshing it is talk to you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve been getting a lot of calls from Punjab. You know the Patel, Singhs, Punjabs folks.”

I was quite taken aback by what he said. Did I not mention my name?

“Oh you mean dubbadubbadubba,” putting my worst impression of my mother’s accent.

“That’s right! Exactly!”

“Well, I’m one of them.”


Needless to say, I didn’t get the room.

So what’s in a voice?

Not teaching my sister and me our family’s language did have an adverse effect. I lost out on countless conversations with family in India, inside jokes with friends, and, most importantly, talks with my grandmother. Conversations between her and me were one-sided; mostly, it was her telling me to get married. Perhaps I won on this. But it is embarrassing when you, as 32-year-old adult, have to have your 12-year-old cousin translate for you.

I lost out.

So what’s in a voice?

We have stereotypes that we don’t even know we have.

When you pick up the phone, and you’re talking to that person at the other end, does your demeanor change?

When you hear an Indian accent, what do you do? Does it make you angry or curious?

I was listening to a local DC radio station on my way to work. The topic was on the National Spell Bee, and they were planning a fantasy bee bracket. The hosts talked about their top picks would be any of the Indian American participants. A person who was Indian American called in and talked about the importance of education in the Indian American community.

The host then said, “Wow. You speak really good English.”

Um… thanks.


Posted by on June 9, 2010 in Social Issues


13 responses to “Vox: Prejudices in Sound

  1. Suchin Adhlakha

    June 9, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    i love this entry. thanks for contributing, queeraj. your entries are so real and interesting to read. keep them coming!

  2. Benita

    June 9, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Wow, I felt really sad for you when I read this post. I was born in Queens, NY and raised in New Jersey near the Edison/Iselin Indian community. When I grew up, there were few Indian-Americans in the area and my schools had only a few Indian-American students – unlike Edison schools or Iselin schools. So I also didn’t make many Indian friends growing up and even today, most of my friends are not Indian.

    However…I can speak my parents’ native language fluently. In fact, they taught us that language first. We are bilingual and switch between English and Gujarati. I am more fluent than my sister and I do have a slight hint of an accent more than her. I can’t imagine not being able to speak Gujarati. Otherwise, I would not be able to talk to my grandmother(s) as their English is limited to hello, bye, how are you, happy birthday, etc. And I’d be bored to death at the plays.

    As far as Hindi…thank God for subtitles at the movies!

    Your story about housing is very disturbing…and is very much a violation of the FHA. You were discriminated based on your race/color. So sad that in this day and age, a person of our heritage is acceptable if we don’t have the accent (no way of knowing our ethnicity) but upon admitting we have the same names as those FOB thick accent immigrants or tech support people, we are not acceptable.

    Your story raises a question…are we Indian-Americans (those of us born and raised here) facing backlash over outsourcing of jobs (which even we are victims of given that we don’t have those jobs either)?

  3. DEL

    June 10, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Very heartfelt and interesting post. I work for an Indian company and many of my colleagues speak their native language fluently (perhaps because many were born in Indian and came here later in life). Many of them make many of the same comments I hear from other non-Indians when we make calls into our internal corporate help-desk (staffed entirely in India). The same comments about how painful it is to call in… which makes me wonder if it is as much the voice (which I find beautiful with a soothing sing-song rhythm) but the “we cannot deviate from the scripted response” that you often encounter. Anyway … no matter… remember that as many people find your culture, voice beautiful as not. Don’t let the haters spoil the rest!

  4. QueenRaj

    June 10, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Benita – Don’t cry for me. 😉 Thank you so much for your story. I assume you and I are in the same age group and dealt with the same issues growing up. However, our parents diverged in the way to handle the language. You know what makes me angry? There was research out there at that time to dispute findings about the “negative” effects of bilingualism. Yes, there would be difficulties at first with reading comprehension etc. Whatever. I can go on. But I must let go of the bitterness. Find humor in the situation. Believe me, there are times I was thankful I did not understand my grandmother. She yelled a lot.

    I so agree about the subtitles! Have you noticed more Indian movies in the theaters?

    As for you last question, oh so juicy question!
    I really have to think about this. I have heard of an Indian businessman bringing back part of a company to the US. I would have to find the article.
    Such a good question.

    Anyone want to comment on Benita’s question?

    Thanks again, Benita for your comment!

  5. bsa

    June 11, 2010 at 4:39 am

    Loved this entry. Something a lot of people experience. The, “Wow you speak really good English” pisses me off.

  6. Praveen

    June 11, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Speaking in English to other Indians is more likely to change your accent when speaking English. Speaking in another language will not really have a noticeable effect on your accent when speaking in English. It’s too bad your dad did not realize that he got his accent because he grew up speaking English with other accented people or he just spoke English on a regular basis very late in life when speech patterns are already set.

  7. siapap

    June 11, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    bsa – We appreciate your comment, and thanks for reading. Your feedback and opinion is very valuable to us. However, let’s try to use more family-appropriate language in the future. : )

  8. rwkster

    June 11, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Language is a very important part of heritage and culture. Discrimination against people who sound different has taken place in many places and times. At last night’s From Camps to Congress event, Congressman Mike Honda touched on the benefits of teaching English or any other languages in a person’s native tongue.

    This is also a very timely issue of debate in Arizona, where teachers with accents might not be able to teach English there anymore:

    Often times, it’s when a language is suppressed that leads to an oppression of a whole people. This is evident in countries like Botswana, China, etc., where there are an abundance of dialects and languages, with a dominant Lingua Franca that largely ignores the idiosyncrasies of cultural needs and lifestyle that specific languages address.

  9. bsa

    June 11, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    siapap –

    Very well: It urinates me off.

  10. zach t

    June 15, 2010 at 10:39 am

    If conversing a language is that important to you, how hard is it to learn it? since you already have people you can converse with; that makes it much easier.

  11. QueenRaj

    June 15, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    BSA —hahahaha! I will have to read your blog! It really is annoying when people say, “You speak real good.” Super!

    Zach – I’m trying to now. But I’m old. I cannot retain anything. Half the time I enter a room and forget what I am suppose to get. My parents are in another state. I’m not really involved the with Indian community in DC. I suppose I could join and converse. I think I need to take a very long vacation to India. Somewhere by the beach.

    Rwkster- Thank you for posting the article!

  12. QueenRaj

    June 16, 2010 at 8:52 am

    This was on NPR’s morning addition.
    Thought it would be a good laugh.
    As the saying goes, “Never judge a book by its cover.”

  13. indianinus

    May 1, 2012 at 10:12 am

    I realize this is a bit late. I’m one of those 1st-generation Indians and I am teaching my kids all the languages we speak (my husband and I have different mother-tongues). You can read more about it here ( Thankfully, latest research supports multilingualism.


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