The Awkward Topic of Huja’s Accent

In The Hook this week, Lisa Provence writes about the socially difficult topic of City Councilor Satyendra Huja’s strong Indian accent, and the difficulty that some people have understanding him. A few weeks ago, a woman addressing the council said that she’d had trouble following his remarks, saying that “it is the right of citizens to hear and comprehend what is going on during official meetings,” and proposing that Huja should pay for a translator so that citizens can understand him. It was that last bit that seemed to rile up some other councilors and members of the audience—Huja has a perfect command of English, and mention of a translator smacked of xenophobia, muddying an otherwise straightforward point. Council then did something extraordinary in response to the implication that their fellow councilor was not fit to hold office: they held a vote of confidence, which passed unanimously.

Culturally, we tend to regard it as our failing if we have a hard time comprehending somebody with a thick accent. The single-term Democrat is seeking reelection, which makes the topic more ticklish still. Assuming that this is actually a problem that merits addressing (I rarely have difficulty understanding him, but I don’t doubt that others do), it remains an open question what an appropriate response is, on either a governmental or social level.

36 thoughts on “The Awkward Topic of Huja’s Accent”

  1. Personally, I can’t understand a word he says. People who know him better have told me that he IS able to speak perfectly. He simply chooses not to. I can’t understand him at council meetings. I can’t understand him on TV. The first time he ran, he called asking for my vote. I had to tell him no, because I couldn’t figure out what the heck he was saying.

  2. Waldo,

    I am surprised that you focus on the issue of Mr. Huja’s accent. With your attention to government, I would have thought the far more egregious issue would have been the way council handled a citizen comment.

    A vote of confidence ?

  3. On the topic of Mr. Huja’s accent, Waldo, have you sat in Council and tried to understand him, or on TV. I watch close to 100% of the meetings, and 80% of the time ( I’m being generous ) I can’t understand a work he says. It is frustrating, and I am glad someone finally had the courage to stand up and say this in public, no matter why she did it, this needed to be said publicly. Privately people have talked to Mr. Huja and the democratic leadership, and for years nothing has changed.

    A neighbor, who attended last nights Fry’s Spring Forum, called afterward and said that she couldn’t understand a thing he said and therefore would not consider voting for him. She is new in Charlottesville.

  4. I was at the Fry’s Spring forum last night. I understood everything Mr. Huja said. Sure he has an accent, but so do many people in these parts. How about Kathy Galvin’s New England accent? Any dredgers having problems understanding her? :-)

  5. I am surprised that you focus on the issue of Mr. Huja’s accent. With your attention to government, I would have thought the far more egregious issue would have been the way council handled a citizen comment.

    If you think it’s egregious, talk about it here! That’s the idea behind this website. :) I didn’t watch video or listen to audio of the exchange, so my knowledge of what happened comes only from reading The Hook’s article, but I didn’t find their response especially egregious. I would have taken the edge off of a couple of remarks a little, but the fundamental nature of the interaction—Council defending a colleague against what they perceived as a personal attack—seems unremarkable to me. But convince me (and everybody else) otherwise! What am I missing?

    On the topic of Mr. Huja’s accent, Waldo, have you sat in Council and tried to understand him, or on TV.

    I have attended just one Council meeting since his election, and I’m afraid I can’t recall whether I had any difficulty understanding him. My interactions with him have been primarily one-on-one. (He owns an apartment downtown, which he rents out, and my recently deceased grandmother was his tenant for a few years.)

    I wonder if people’s response would be different if this was a councilor with a very, very strong southern accent, like Virgil Goode’s?

  6. The first name that popped into my head was “Virgil Goode” when I saw the headline. I can’t understand half of what that man says! I distinctly remember chuckling at the end of his messages during his last campaign when he said he approved his his ad because “ad” sounded like “aid.”

    I’ve never found Mr. Huja difficult to understand. In fact, I’ve always thought of his accent as charming and interesting (perhaps due to being a language major in college?).

  7. OK, we’ve established that some people like the accent, some don’t, some can understand him, some can’t. Now, can we move on to the topic of whether and how this constitutes an interesting question of citizen/government interaction? I’ll start.

    My gut reaction is that the lady needs to suck it up and deal — accents are a reality of the world we live in. If you need to get past an accent, listen to it for a little while and it will start to disappear. However, I’m probably reacting a bit to the xenophobic tinge with that reaction, and not to the practical aspect — she didn’t have that luxury at the moment.

  8. Everyone’s brain is wired to hear and comprehend different sounds as language based on the neural pathways that develop over time.

    When I first moved here (14 years ago), my New England grandfather and Teddy Kennedy sounded perfectly normal and, land sakes alive, I couldn’t understand half of what MANY people were saying. Now I can throw down with the best of them, although Virgil Goode does still pose a challenge at times.

    But I must say that it is rare that I can fully comprehend the words coming out of Mr. Huja’s mouth without intensely focusing. Often I have to parse his utterances and figure out the statement subsequent to hearing it.

    Naturally, with enough time listening to the cadence and tone of his speech, my brain (and anyone’s brain) would adapt. But I do wonder if the gentleman could make more of an effort to enunciate clearly? Is it incumbent on all that can’t understand him to devote their mental energy to his words, or does it make more sense for him to make the effort?

    If he wishes to take part in public life, not being understood by a sizable portion of listeners will ultimately be a hindrance to him and no one else. The confidence vote certainly was a kind gesture and the city council is on the record for being against xenophobia (how brave). The underlying issue remains unresolved.

  9. I have met and spoken with Mr. Huja. He is a most gracious and kind man.

    Yes, he has an accent, but anyone who is willing to listen has no trouble understanding him.

    And should what he says be unclear, he will slowly, politely, and graciously repeat himself if asked.

    I’ve left the C’ville area, but keep tabs on the news, and when I read this, I had to comment.

    You may disagree with his politics, that is your right, but do not insult the man himself like this–he is entirely to decent an individual for anyone to do so.

  10. Most people would agree that one on one Mr. Huja can be understood, but the people I know cannot understand his comments at council. Apparently there are some who are adept with accents, but this is not true for those I know who support many different points of view, and Mr. Ackerman, for me it has nothing to do with his politics, this is a matter of communication.

    Instead of a vote of confidence, which I found out of order, I would hope that the council would take steps to address the problem, so that those in the public who cannot understand him could.

    The fact that we have an engaged populace that wants to understand what their elected officials are saying should be applauded not ridiculed

  11. It seems a bit off putting to me that a city councilor has to tape a sign to his nameplate to reminds him to talk “slow and clear.”

    Why would that sign be put there again?

  12. Mr. Huja brought out a lot of voters last election, so clearly a lot of people understand him quite well. My bet is these same people show up again at the primary, probably with some more of their friends who think this attack was probably politically motivated. Funny how something seemingly as technical as “communication” can be politicized. He communicated just fine in his many years of service to the City and has been doing just fine as a Councilor.

    Now I would hope that our fine journalists in this area would get on the story and dig a little and find out whether or not this was a politically motivated tactic in what has become a contentious campaign. Who does this women support in the upcoming election? Where’s the Hook when you need them? If it is politically motivated, shame on those who did it and are trying to win an election by any means. If not, shame on her and way to go sitting Councilors for an appropriate response to a weird situation.

  13. I don’t care what her motives are, and I don’t care if he is elected or not. I just want to be able to understand what he is saying. Forget politics and get him to speak so that us ordinary folks ( not linguists) can understand what he is saying on council.

  14. One thing that is puzzling to me is that Huja has been (according to my inferences from his résumé on his own campaign website)since his sophomore/junior year in high school . . . 51 years ago, yet still has such a heavy accent as to be unintelligible to at least some English first-language citizens. (Nevermind that English was also a language of some school instruction and inter-communal use in India the era of Huja’s youth.)

    What explains the persistence (or return? or new situation) of inability to be universally understood?

    I don’t think it is the fault of listeners, who are generally hearing more and different forms of “World English” than our parents and grandparents ever did.

  15. “But I do wonder if the gentleman could make more of an effort to enunciate clearly? Is it incumbent on all that can’t understand him to devote their mental energy to his words, or does it make more sense for him to make the effort? ……..” (failing to see the issue)

    This would be an excellent excuse for council to spend money, to have their own closed circuit public access channel 10 adapted with closed captioning. Yes, I’m being facetious.

    Did that make you pay attention? I bet dollars to spudnuts that the “accent” is intentional (to make one listen intentionly)or from some earlier lifetime traumatic incident (you know as in how some people have an accident and then speak with an “accent” they have never had afterwards.)

    However, a vote of confidence? Uncalled for. Council could have expressed either it’s “delicate” sympathy or dismay without a grandstand dispensation of typical (reverse-stereotypical) political correctness.
    Ah, but they wouldn’t be the city council they are, if they couldn’t show off that proper “World Class” bravado. Yeah, it’s impressive isn’t it?

  16. I wish our council had more of a sense of history and our founding documents when it came to governing, is that asking too much ?
    Perhaps all elected officials need a course in civics before they take over their terms.

  17. Isn’t it a “Punjabi” accent not an “Indian” accent? Many languages spoken in that country.

  18. You may well be right, Bill, but I don’t have the faintest idea. I’m terrible at distinguishing the different accents (and, indeed, languages) of India. I messed up a rather public attempt to do so about ten years ago, and I haven’t dared try since. :) There are north of a thousand languages spoken in India, and 29 of them that are spoken by more than a million people apiece. Whether Huja’s accent is Tamil, Hindi, Urdu, or Punjabi, I don’t actually know, so my solution was to go for the inaccurate but at least kind of accurate shorthand of “Indian.” :)

  19. Lay aside the accent — that’s not the issue. I completely agree that not being able to hear is the issue – a meeting cannot be considered accessible to the public if the public cannot hear. We deserve to hear what councilors have to say, especially to hear them explain their votes — and changes to votes.

    Speaking of inaccessibility — have you been to a Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority board meeting? I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people who speak so softly. Why doesn’t RWSA buy some microphones? certainly affordable, since RWSA has collected plenty of ratepayer dollars (they’re sitting on millions of our cash, collected from rate increase in 2002 that was supposed to pay for dredging).

  20. The question of how Huja ever managed to have a job here considering his inability to speak intelligible English has stumped me for a long time. It can’t be that he has some rare talent that makes dealing with not being able to understand him somehow worth it.

    Huja was a planner for the city of Charlottesville for years. The Mall is alright, but even allowing for that, Charlottesville has dreadful planning and is nowhere nearly as interesting architecturally speaking as Staunton, Lynchburg, Lexington, Roanoke, or numerous other smaller Virginian cities.

    I think it was a mistaken perception of Huja as a savior in some fashion of Charlottesville (due tot eh Mall’s popularity) that got him elected, but since he has been on council he hasn’t demonstrated any vision for the future or really any for the present. The Belmont Bridge situation being a case in point. Frankly I don’t regard him as having been an effective councilor at all.

    I would agree that Huja’s unwillingness (or inability if that’s what it is) to speak clearly is a concern since he’s a elected official. Yes, I’ve spoken to him in person one on one on several occasions and got about 10% of it. I find it even less rewarding to try to follow him when he speaks in public.

  21. Business as usual — Rock the boat in Cville and get called some pejorative name by the power elite. City Councilors do it. Supervisors do it. That’s how they try to discourage people from speaking up. Such arrogance! So predictable. Vilify the person who wants a problem addressed. Classic Cville strategy. Anything to promote the Cville sensibility that protects the power elite and keeps the “outs” down.

    You need to have a tough hide to deal with those turkeys. Go get ’em Ms. Napoleon!!!!!! Need a list? LOL

  22. What if we aren’t merely talking about a South Asian accent, but a South Asian accent and a mild speech impairment? Wouldn’t that take the critcism of Mr. Huja out of the realm of awkward and make it grossly inappropriate–not to mention possibly discriminatory under the Americans with Disability Act? (I’m no speech therapist, and I doubt any of the anonymous bloggers here are speech therapist either.)

  23. If it were an ADA matter, then it would be incumbent on the city to provide the means to make the councillor understood by the general public. If Huja were deaf & only spoke sign language, we would have an interpreter on the payroll so that citizens could understand what contributions the councillor was making.

    Even if it were an ADA matter, that doesn’t make a comment by the general public discriminatory: it remains free speech.

    In the rare encounters I’ve had with Huja over the years, I have had to ask for two or three repetitions from him & usually given up at that point still not knowing what he said. Of course, I also do not understand virtually any lyrics of any popular song that has come into existence over the past few decades… My hearing continues to test in the acute range, so perhaps this is some as-yet-unidentified hearing impairment that I suffer from.

    I think city council was way off base with this one. A vote of confidence? Seriously silly. It is a legitimate complaint and failing to address it places some fairly significant portion of the voters in the untenable position of not knowing what one of their elected officials is advocating.

    I don’t care about the exact word choice given when this complaint was voiced: the core of it is accurate enough that something should be done to correct the problem. A councillor needs to communicate: if you’re not understood by some fairly large portion of your audience, then you’re not doing your job. Whether that’s up to Huja to fix or city government to accomodate, I don’t care. City council erred when they blamed the victim. And so far, nobody is stepping up to actually address the issue.

  24. Thank you, Barbara Myer. Well said. The council’s vote of confidence was embarrassing. Similarly, 51 years of speaking American English is long enough for Huja to learn how to be universally understood.

    More than this: I’ve been watching the public meetings, watching the local media, reading everything, and I’m stuck with the question, “what does Huja want to do on Council?” I just don’t know what animates the guy.

  25. Additionally, I’ll say: the level of professional accomplishment and range of applicable skills shown by our current Councilors is pitiful.

    I kind of remember (imagine?) that twenty-five years or so ago in Ch’ville, this was not the case. There were businessmen and lawyers and academics alike.

  26. “Even if it were an ADA matter, that doesn’t make a comment by the general public discriminatory: it remains free speech.”

    Just because its free speech doesn’t mean it was not discriminatory in nature.

    Council did the right thing morally despite what the Huja detractors here say.

    Looks like even Mayor Norris thought it was appropriate to say yes on confidence for Huja. The vote of confidence was not initiated by Huja.

    I always know what is being advocated and if I don’t I just ask, even if I have to do so in writing. Just listen even if you don’t like the guy.

    This just all reeks of political shenanigans.

    All the more reason to vote for Huja next Saturday.

  27. The criticism of Mr. Huja’s speech was made the third Monday of July. It must have worked because he was completely understandable at the next meeting on the first Monday of August. Obviously it has nothing to do with accent. Of course Council made a foll of iself while calling the criticism erroneously xenophobic and trying to use the incident to show that they were championing someone ethnicity. Somehow those inept nuts can always embarrass themselves.

  28. Okay, so the “slow and clear” reminder sign that danpri ridicules is working well. I guess the conversation about Mr. Huja’s speech is over. Or does someone want to talk about his vision, too? There’s the Meadowcreek Parkway that has been approved by four different councils that still needs debate, right? And the community water plan that was approved twice in the last three years…. We elect city councilors, folks. Isn’t it about time we live their decisions?

  29. The criticism of Mr. Huja’s speech was made the third Monday of July. It must have worked because he was completely understandable at the next meeting on the first Monday of August. Obviously it has nothing to do with accent.

    Your conclusion isn’t supported by the evidence that you cite. Accent is very malleable. I can go anywhere from the British accent that I picked up as a kid to the southern accent that I developed as an adult, or a flat midwestern accent in between. I often do so subconsciously, depending on to whom I’m talking. For somebody whose natural accent (and perhaps native tongue) is very different than English, it surely involves conscious effort to speak with the proper sounds to be understood consistently by Americans who are native English speakers. The “slow and clear” sign and the problem of accent are not mutually exclusive.

  30. I am able to understand Mr. Huja, but apparently some others are not. I think his accent is less an issue than enunciation and pronunciation. For me the larger issue is of the rudeness of the complainant. A well written letter or one on one conversation with Mr. Huja would have been a more kind and personal way of communicating the problem, rather than to call him out at a council meeting in front of his peers, city residents, and numerous media outlets. That was rude, insensitive, unkind and unnecessary. Though I think City Council’s vote of confidence was odd, it was also a very sensitive response to an unkind deed having been done to another. It is one thing to call out an elected official regarding a position on an issue, but quite another to do so about something personal.

  31. Thanks Trixie P–you nailed it exactly. As you note, the Council vote of confidence was odd–but sensitive. So folks should just let it go. It didn’t involve spending city money or setting policy. Ms. Napoleon’s comments felt wrong to all of the councilors, including Dave Norris. So they stepped up to back Mr. Huja. That so many pro-dredging/anti MCP folks jumped in here to criticize Council or Mr. Huja, or defend free speech rights, suggest to me that this whole chapter was really about the Meadowcreek Parkway and water supply. But beating that tired old horse one more time wouldn’t have made news, so they went after the man. Sad.

  32. …And it turns out that the Napolean woman who made the cheap comment at Council is a Dede Smith Supporter. One can’t help but wonder if the timing of her attack was related to the campaign? If so, Pro-dredgers and the candidates they support sink to new low. These are the type of people we want on Council, really?

    The hits keep coming: Norris, sitting mayor endorses candidates, the ticket does the lame softball move at the first forum showing their group think bloc intentions, now this Huja personal attack. What’s next since the dredgers ran out of facts and support from major institutions.

    Kinda ironic, the tactic forces Norris to come out with a vote of confidence for Huja. If he is that confident in him, perhaps Huja deserves all our votes. Looks like the Norris ticket just got a little bigger.

    Huja came out with a great transportation agenda today that helps the environment and less well off people in the City. Way to go Huja, thanks for not wasting more of our time on MCP and Water supply. We know you watch out for all Citizens’ interests on Council and that the Norri bloc won’t.

  33. Interesting but inaccurate analysis. I was relieved that this topic is finally “out”. It is indeed one, but just one, of the reasons I did not vote for Huja previously. Far more important was my central concept that foxes should not guard the hen-house. That is that a long-term city employee was not the best adapted to determine policy for the city. There are moments of cross-over and there are not moments of cross-over. I voted for Bob Dole for Republican presidential candidate when he didn’t get the nomination: by the time he did, he was not longer fit for it. Ditto John McCain. There is an arc to these things & in my estimation Huja was well beyond his, if he ever had an arc, by the time he became Candidate Huja.

    The fact is that however I voted, he has been representing me and I have not been able to understand an alarming amount of what he’s been advocating. The comments about sensitivity and kindness are the equivalent of judging books by covers — and so have the silly extrapolations here. If you can’t understand Huja, you must be dredging only advocates? Really? Post hoc ergo propter hoc, anyone?

  34. @Barbare Myer: So you are for completing the Meadow Creek Parkway and building the dam?

  35. Karl Ackerman, what I really want is a time machine. I want us to have maintained the Jefferson School so that we didn’t have to give it away. I want us to have maintained the downtown mall so we didn’t have to spend seven million redoing it. I want us to have dredged our reservoir. “Take care of your things and your things will take care of you.”

    Not being able to bend the laws of time & space to my liking, however, I don’t know what I want with the Meadowcreek Parkway. I do believe that it should have been planned and evaluated as a single project rather than the three it was parsed into. I’m grateful to the people who keep pressing the issue because I don’t want elected officials to think that they should keep behaving that way to get what they want. It should be expensive to try to evade the rules. The simple fact that we have aware citizens watching & not afraid to jump up and down if they see rule-avoidance may, I say may, give us a better product on the next major local road: the bypass that doesn’t. Pragmatically, the parkway will one day be finished. I am in no hurry for that to happen, however. I welcome the current process as a cautionary tale in regards to the next project.

    No clue about the dam, either. I think that first things first is take care of what you have. Council voted for dredging before they voted against dredging. That flip-flop was as interesting as the County bypass flip-flop: indicative of hidden pools of influence that deeply alarm me.

    What I want candidates to talk about is the CIP. I want to have first and foremost a conversation about conserving & maintaining the resources we have. I’d also love to see that linked to on-the-job training for our local unemployed: a mini-CCC. Two birds, one stone.

    So far I’m not convinced that any candidate will get a vote from me this Saturday.

  36. Is it not perfectly possible that the policy makers making decisions on the MCP and the water plan just got more information that convinced them that the road should be built and the earthen dam was the best way to go? Why is it that when they change their mind or make a final decision there is some evil, developer inspired plot behind it. Bull.

    The CWSP people have just polluted the debate and discussion so much by accusing everyone who disagrees with them of corruption that people just start thinking everyone is corrupt and didn’t have very reasonable reasons for changing their positions on these two issues.

    Dredging isn’t more cost effective and won’t provide the water we need. Ask the UVA engineers who looked at the plans and endorsed the City Council’s current decision.

    I am just so sick of all the innuendo about decent public servants who have spent time looking into the issues and come up with decisions that a small vocal minority disagrees with so they are impugned. Its BS. The Hook article was noting but propaganda and Innuendo. Voters see it for what it was.

    I think the CWSP are the problem as they have abused their position as advocates and want to win this election so badly that they will impugn anyone who disagrees with them and will engage in any election tactics to get their way.

    All the more reason to not vote for their candidates: Smith, Blount, and Cannon and to vote for Galvin, Huja, Halfaday or Beyer.

    Build the dam and the road and let’s get back to discussions about the Jefferson School and its future a more important topic than the old news of road and dam.

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