One of many many consequences of poor quality of education and low level of that poor quality of education in a country can be poor science literacy — population demonstrating a lack of knowledge and understanding of some very basic science behind a lot of things.

I came across yet another example of Nepalis displaying just such an ignorance several months ago in the context of accents, and, in the process, potentially also displaying their arrogance!

Early this Summer, I noticed Nepalis making fun of or taking a jab at the Nepal-born American Idol participant Dibesh Pokharel/Arthur Gunn‘s American twang. In May, I made a series of tweets about that starting with this: “I bet many of d Nepalis taking a jab at or denouncing d American Idol finalist Dibhesh’s/Arthur’s American twang probably also ridicule fellow Nepalis who speak Nepali with an accent.”

I added, “They probably have no idea about the irony there &, worse, their display of ignorance.”

To begin with, who is Dibesh Pokharel/Arthur Gunn? Here’s the video of his American Idol audition. If you watch the video, you’ll understand what I mean by his American twang.

What follows — about Nepalis, the science behind accents and our brain — includes materials from the tweet thread.

According 2011 Census Report, about 45%, less than half the population of Nepalis declared — as their mother tongue — Nepali, also known as Khas-kura (“the language of the Khas”). (The Khas people or Khas-aryas are the hill so-called high caste Hindus.)

One reason behind that is the fact that Nepali (Khas-kura) is but only ONE of 123 languages spoken in the country Another reason goes back to the aforementioned fact: our education system has been and continues to be very poor, and accessibility to even that poor education has been an issue for the entire 70-or-so-year history of the system. However, Nepali is the ONLY Official Language.

Among those who denounced Gunn for his American twang are LIKELY people who make fun of Newars, Bhotes, and Madhesis for their…Nepali accent! Listing Newar, Bhote, and Madhesi accents as examples, I didn’t mean to imply that those are the ONLY accents that are mocked. I am sure there are other accents too which are made fun of by fellow Nepalis.

I know when I was growing up in Nepal as a Bhote (a low-caste ethnic Tibetan), I was very conscious of NOT wanting to speak Nepali the way older members of my family and community members did — to avoid being mocked! I did everything I could to lose — or to not adopt — any traces of the Bhote accent (just as I did many other things to distance myself from my ethnic Tibetan heritage and identity because Nepali society considered us to be a “backward people,” among a host of other things).

Even as diverse as Nepalis are — ethnically, culturally, linguistically etc. — the expectation in the country for non-Khas-aryas is to adapt to and assimilate into the “mainstream.”

Of course, most elements of what pass as “mainstream” are part of the hill so-called high caste Hindu culture. When it comes to accents, that translates into one that’s more Khas-arya than any other.

So, when there’s social “pressure” — both overt and covert — to speak with a certain accent, some may consciously choose to do so, the way I did, for example. For many, that may just happen, completely unconsciously. I suspect that’s what happened with Gunn and his American twang, just as it did with mine my first year of college in the US. As a matter of fact, I had NO idea that I had acquired an North-American accent. I became aware of it only when my ex-girlfriend in Italy pointed that out during a telephone conversation, saying, “What happened to you?! You sound like an American!”

How does — or why would — a person adopt an accent unconsciously? That’s just how our brain works!

We, of the science bent, refer to accents as an “environmental trait” (as opposed to a “genetic trait”). In other words, the accent a toddler starts speaking with is NOT hard-wired in the child’s DNA. That s/he speaks with the same accent as their parents has NOTHING to do with the genes they inherit from their parents. There is a SIMPLE explanation behind that.

A baby’s/toddler’s brain, when picking up and learning language. not only picks up and learns vocabulary, syntax, grammar, expressions etc. from their parents first, but also HOW to speak, i.e. the intonations and the accent. A human brain, even that of a toddler is so amazing that not only does it pick up and learn vocabulary and language structure to communicate and be understood, it also recognizes — and decides — that HOW to speak is EQUALLY important. The brain recognizes and decides it must speak with the same accent as the parents to be understood, starts by mimicking it, and ends up adopting it. You see, our brain’s goal, when communicating, is to be understood.

And a baby/toddler does NOT do that consciously. It’s all pretty automatic.

(It’s for the same reason that a toddler is able to effortlessly speak the correct language with different members of the family if they all speak different languages with the child.)

What happens if a toddler has older siblings who also speak to her? Won’t their accent(s) influence the child? Of course…except the older siblings too would speak with the same accent having learned to speak from the same parents! Siblings as a matter of fact reinforce the accent.

Until recently, pretty much all communities around the world were considerably homogeneous in their culture, their heritage, their language, and therefore their accent. That’s still true of many communities around the world. As such, the accent of a child is reinforced also by community members, and the society at large too in many cases.

Of course, if a Nepali couple who speak English in a Nepali accent moves to London, UK, and has a child there, the child’s accent will be English though. The explanation here is the overwhelming prevalence of the English accent. On average, the child will hear considerably more English accent than Nepali accent and gets attuned more to the former.

So, a growing child’s brain, having figured out — from constant reinforcements — the accent it’s supposed to adopt to be understood and having been “rewarded” for speaking in a way others understand, ends up mastering the native accent (as well the language). Again, all unconsciously, of course!

But, as you may have already realized, one CAN pick up a new accent. When one moves to a new place (like Arther Gunn and I to the US) where they speak a language (English) that one also speaks but with a different accent, the brain takes cues from those around and modifies intonations and pronunciations, and therefore one’s accent automatically to make oneself understood, just as it did when it was learning to speak for the very FIRST time as a toddler!

Remember, when talking, when communicating, the main goal of a human brain is to be UNDERSTOOD. There’s likely evolutionary explanations behind that.

Now, to return to the first tweet…. When Nepalis mock people like Gunn and me for speaking English with any other but Nepali accent as a result of spending considerable amount of time in a foreign land, they are displaying their ignorance. They are displaying their ignorance of what accents are and how they are acquired. Plus, the irony — likely lost on them — is that the same people likely mock fellow Nepalis for their Nepali accents!

In other words, they mock fellow Nepalis in Nepal for NOT having adapted to the “mainstream” accent and even characterize them as “backward” on the basis of their accent, while also mocking, at the same time, someone of Nepali heritage in the US who HAS adapted to the mainstream accent there, the American accent.

In the case of many of those in Nepal who mock fellow Nepalis for their accents, of course, the reason isn’t just — or likely even — their lack of knowledge and understanding of what accents are. The reason is more likely ALSO their arrogance, and prejudice against those Nepalis!

What do you think?


(Click here or here or here for other examples of the consequences of our low science literacy in the country and belief in superstition instead. Click here for more about the story behind my American twang. Click here for more about all the marks and symbols of my “backwardness” associated with my ethnicity that I tried to get rid of growing up in Nepal.)

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