When I describe to people what I do, they always tell me about someone at work, or someone they have to speak to on the phone, whose accent they can’t understand. (IT support departments in India is the most common one).
But of course, they’ve never said anything. They just muddle through, sometimes pretending they understand, usually asking that person to repeat her- or himself, always getting terribly embarrassed by the whole thing – and if they’re embarrassed, imagine how the person with the ‘strong’ accent is feeling!
“Sorry?” Understanding other accents
Read this blogpost for some good advice about how to cope with unfamiliar accents at work: point 1 is my favourite. If you yourself speak steadily and carefully, and make sure your own speech is crystal clear, it’s very likely that the person you’re talking to will start to do the same.
How can I put this…?
A ‘strong’ accent is a difficult subject to raise with people. It’s like telling someone they have bad breath. Even if you’re a manager or HR professional, used to giving direct and honest feedback, extra sensitivity is needed with this one.
It’s more complicated than other kinds of feedback, on areas like people skills or personal presentation. Most organisations have a culture, with particular rules and conventions, which applies to everyone; most people expect to adapt themselves to their work environment to an extent, whether it’s in the way they dress, or the vocabulary they use.
But a person’s speech is a different matter. It’s part of who they are and where they come from, so being told that that part of them isn’t acceptable, if it’s handled badly, can be taken as a major affront. It’s very hard not to take it personally: at worst, it can feel like discrimination.
Accent and office politics
I’ve also known occasions when difficulty understanding an accent – whether genuine or feigned – has been used to diminish or undermine a person. For a pretty vivid example, watch the video of Russell Brand being interviewed on US television: at points when he’s in full flow, and has his interviewers on the back foot (watch at 4’38 and 7’32 specifically) they try to take the wind out of his sails by claiming they can’t understand his Essex vowels. Genuinely, or is it just a sly tactic?
If a strongly-accented employee or colleague feels like something similar is going on when you tell them you struggle to understand them, it can really damage the working relationship.
A solution, not a problem
So how do you tell some they need accent reduction classes? I’ve spoken to a range of employers and HR professionals about this, and to be honest, no-one has a foolproof method for starting this conversation. (Trust me, I’m working on it!)
As with the coaching I do, it all depends on the individual, and the relationship you have. Sometimes it can be done with an informal chat; often it works when it comes as part of an otherwise glowing appraisal or performance review (‘you’re doing fantastic work, we’re really pleased, the only area we really need to work on is communication skills…’)
It’s always more effective to talk about how accent reduction classes would benefit the individual, rather than how they would help everyone else. It’s not about making life easier for everyone else, it’s about making life easier for the accented person: enhancing her skills, her effectiveness, her confidence. ‘Imagine how much more satisfying and productive your working life would be without all that confusion, embarrassment and timewasting!’ (Or words to that effect…)
Accent-uate the positive
So if there is someone you know, a colleague or a friend, who’s frustrated at having to repeat him- or herself all the time, or who hates being asked to speak in meetings, it could be that they would love to get help, if others weren’t too polite to tell them about it. Saying something could be the biggest favour you ever do them. Just remember to emphasise the benefits for them, rather than all the benefits it might bring to you!
One tip though: if you’re in HR and you’re recommending accent reduction training to a member of staff, it always goes down better if the company is offering to pay for it
Click on ‘Contact Me’ above to find out more about accent reduction and confident speaking. Til next time…
Which is more important, confident speaking or accurate speaking – getting the accent ‘right’?
I gave a talk on this topic earlier this month to an audience of Chinese and British-born Chinese (BBC) professionals in London.
‘if I just get the accent right I’ll be good at speaking’.
When it comes to confident speaking, especially if English isn’t your first language, some people see accent as a shortcut: ‘If I just get the accent right I’ll be good at speaking’.
It doesn’t really work like that.
Correct pronunciation is important for making yourself understood, of course.
But the thing is, as long as the speaker is communicating effectively, most listeners can cope with a bit of an accent. What people find difficult to listen to is someone who doesn’t sound confident.
Someone who mumbles, or speaks too quickly, or hesitates a lot. And a flawless English accent won’t cure you of any of that.
And while we’re on the subject of ‘getting the accent right’… which accent?
What is the correct way to speak English anyway?
There’s still an assumption that there is a ‘correct’ accent, a sort of official form of English. You know the sound I mean? It’s not exactly ‘posh’: it’s not the Queen’s English, but it tends to be spoken by middle- or upper-middle class people in the south of England. Linguists call in Received Pronuncation or RP. It’s the kind of accent you hear from most BBC newsreaders.
As for whether that’s the correct way to speak, it’s interesting to look at the question in the context of English as a world language.
Heather Hansen, a Singapore-based voice and speech coach, uses some cold hard figures to get a sense of perspective:·
Worldwide number of native English speakers: 400million
Number of non-native English speakers: 1.4billion
English speakers in the UK: 57million
Native speakers of RP or standard English: 1 million
RP English is native to a tiny fraction of English speakers – even within England itself! Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the English spoken in the world at any given moment sounds like this – and yet all those other billions of English speakers across the globe, despite having the ‘wrong’ accent, manage to get by somehow!
When you look at it like this, it doesn’t make sense to think of RP, or BBC English, as ‘correct’ English.
As long as English is clear, consider it correct.
This was an especially relevant issue for a lot of the audience at this event: all fluent English speakers, if not bilingual, although most of them – whether Chinese-born or British-born – that I met spoke with a Chinese or Asian-sounding accent. Some of them talked about wanting to ‘improve’ or ‘speak with a better accent’.
Should they strive to sound more English? Hmm. There are around 300 million people in China alone who are learning English – five times the population of the UK (thanks again, Heather). Maybe it’s us Brits who should be learning a Chinese accent!
Instead of a crash course in how to do an English accent (see a previous post if that’s what you’re after) I took them through the first steps of my Effective Speaking program – simple techniques for for confident speaking, including how to use vocal tone, rhythm, pace and pitch to make your speech easier to listen to.
These techniques inspire confidence because they’re practical: if you understand HOW to speak effectively, you feel more in control of how you communicate, and that confidence will spread to your listeners. They’ll be more inclined to listen to someone who sounds confident in what she’s saying, and do you know what’s interesting?
The more confidently you speak, the less we hear the accent. The less trouble we have understanding you.
So I would say to anyone wondering about whether they need to get the English accent ‘right’ – what do you want? Do you want to sound English? Or do you want to really communicate?
I can help you to do either. But however you choose to sound, make sure you speak with confidence.
Contact me to find out more. Thanks for reading!