My first language was Hindi, but I started learning English very soon after. One of the accents in which I speak English is quite influenced by Hindi phonetics.
The first two consonants in Hindi are: क and ख
We are generally taught to think of them as
क - ka
ख — kha
(The vowel sound here is a short ‘a’ sound. So ka should be pronounced like cut, and there is no ‘kha’ in English, but it’s like the correct pronunciation of Khanacademy, except with a short ‘a’ sound rather than a long ‘a’)
The difference between ka and kha is the amount of ‘aspiration’. It’s the air you release after the ‘k’ sound. In Hindi ka has ZERO aspiration, and kha has quite a bit.
Now let us take for granted that people try to use sounds from the languages they already know to pronounce sounds in new languages. Each unit of sound is called a ‘phoneme’ and not every language has the same set of phonemes. Simple example: Hindi doesn’t have separate sounds for ‘v’ and ‘w’, instead there is just sound that is a bit of mix (व). One can find that Hindi speakers sometimes mix up ‘v’ and ‘w’. One way to think of this is that Hindi speakers don’t have the ability to distinguish two sounds, so when confronted with either ‘v’ or ‘w’ they don’t competently use the right one — maybe they use the mixed sound from Hindi, or maybe they try to say one but get it wrong, I don’t know.
(I recognize that a good portion of my audience reading this will be Chinese — so I would like to add as a more familiar example that Chinese too doesn’t have a ‘v’ sound and Chinese speakers do sometimes also mix up ‘v’ and ‘w’ when speaking English).
Now in the ‘v’ and ‘w’ example what we see is that Chinese and Hindi speakers don’t have two different sounds already practiced. So when they have difficulties in English these arise because they lack the right phonemes.
I’ve realised that in some cases my Hindi-influenced English accent arises because I have more phonemes than needed. So it’s the reverse. It’s the extra ability that hurts you.
How does it do that?
In British Received Pronunciation (the accent you will hear on the BBC), there is no ‘kha’ like sound, but the ‘k’ sound has some minimal amount of aspiration. To feel this, try saying the word ‘King’ with your hand in front of your mouth. If you feel air being released, that’s aspiration.
A Hindi speaker looks at the word ‘King’ and thinks — that’s a ‘k’, like ‘ka’. So he says it with ZERO aspiration. When I said ‘King’ before this entire realisation, I always said it with ZERO aspiration. Try it. Maybe it sounds Indian to you.
I also don’t think I can casually slip in aspiration into ‘King’, that would just be wrong. It is so important in Hindi to make the difference between ka and kha. The word that transliterates to ‘kaan’ means ear and the word that transliterates to ‘khaan’ is a surname (like Khanacademy). So we are careful about this difference, and pronounce the ‘k’ sounds in English with ZERO aspiration.
This isn’t just true of ‘k’. It applies also to ‘p’, ‘t’ and ‘d’. (which are all called ‘stop consonants’ due to the build up and then sudden release of air). Try with the words — peas, teach, doctor. First try to sound really British and feel the aspiration with your hand, then try to sound Indian by having no aspiration.
I find all this really cool. It’s a theory about where accents come from, and an example of how to predict the systematic differences in pronunciations just from the phonetics of a language.
Here’s a bonus bit (especially for my Chinese audience):
In the pinyin system of romanizing Chinese, you have a consonant ‘k’ and a consonant ‘g’ (eg. kěyǐ and yīgè ) . The k is quite aspirated (more than the British RP pronunciation of ‘King’) and g is not aspirated at all.
I’ve commonly been told when I teach Chinese people the Hindi alphabet that ‘ka’ sounds like a ‘g’ sound. But actually Hindi already has a different non-aspirated ‘g’ sound (ga or ग) so I would always find that absurd and tell them how wrong that was.
But I think what’s happening here is that Chinese speakers are mapping g to ka and k to kha, due to the similarities in aspiration, but then they run out of sounds when they get to ‘ga’. Hindi even has a ‘gha’ and usually by the point I’ve revealed this they’re so confused that they are pronouncing all four (ka, kha, ga and gha) randomly. I now understand where this struggle comes from and will be much better equipped to teach the Hindi alphabet.
(I think the ka-kha-ga-gha difficulty is definitely also faced by other people, but I’ve talked about the Chinese here because I was able to come up with a good concrete theory by appealing to pinyin)
On the reverse side when I learnt the first 10–20 words of conversational Chinese, I would represent yīgè in my head as ‘yi-ke’. This is because I didn’t know the pinyin system, so I just used the intuitive romanisation and the sound to me was more like the Hindi ka than the ga.
There’s a lot of examples up there and I hope you correctly understand which sounds I’m referring to. The applications of this are 1) not sounding like a foreigner 2) putting on accents 3) language learning 4) language appreciation. I’m not sure what more linguistics can achieve but you can achieve a lot with a better grasp on language!
DISCLAIMER I grew up in Singapore, where everyone I knew was bilingual. A lot of what I said will apply only to bilinguals. Nonetheless, it will help you understand bilinguals if you are not one. It’s also worth noting that I’m not a linguist. If some of my claims aren’t accurate, it’s the story that counts. That being said, do let me know about them.
Thank you Jing Yang.