How do you pronounce ‘awry’?
Those who’ve worked with me before will know that I talk a lot about spelling.
Those who’ve worked with me before will know that I talk a lot about spelling.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…)
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!
No, I haven’t truncated my coaching into a 3-minute express course – of course there’s so much more to it than that. But Prof David Ley from the University of Alberta has some short, snappy, and quite entertaining tips about how to get the right feel for an educated neutral British English accent. I’m not sure if the end result is anything like how 98% of speakers with this accent actually sound, but his process is pretty bang-on!
Politely disregard the hammy rep-theatre versions of Irish, Southern States and Scottish that he does at the end – don’t call us, we’ll call you, professor
I mentioned this last week in a post about accents in urban music so I thought I’d repost the full piece. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!
New research from Manchester University has found that many people feel unfairly judged because of how they speak, in a manner similar to racism. Some of those surveyed for the research didn’t mind changing their accent in order to get on in the world, whereas others said they felt pressure to speak differently, leading to a sense of leading a sort of double life: speaking ‘properly’ at work and naturally at home.
Suzanne Moore also wrote a very interesting and quite bold piece in the Guardian a few weeks ago, about how other research has found that a majority of British people believe a good grasp of English is essentially to being British’. She makes the point that speaking fluent English is not simply about conforming to an idea of being British; it’s more to do with the opportunities – employement, social, cultural – available to you as a migrant if you can speak the language.
I think the same is true of accents. it’s a shame that some respondents in the Manchester survey felt like impostors when they changed their accents: I assume they don’t feel ‘fake’ when they put on a suit and tie for work, even though that’s not what they’d normally wear at home.
Just as dressing to impress can boost your confidence, being confident that you are truly being heard when you speak gives you a sense of freedom and power. It can help you feel more at home in your workplace, or among new people, in new situations.
Yes that’s right, the work I do is about building a better world, my friends. I expect to be knighted for services to social cohesion very soon.
Seriously though, I don’t believe people should lose their accents. Some people say, ‘oh I hate the such-and-such accent, it’s so annoying’, and that’s just rude: my work is absolutely not about pandering to some people’s prejudices. But if your accent is tricky for some to understand, why let it hold you back?
Do give these articles a look, if you have time – here they are again:
I don’t usually listen to BBC Radio 1xtra for the documentaries (ok, it’s an urban music station and I’m 35 – I don’t usually listen to Radio 1xtra at all). But the other day I stumbled upon a great hour-long program called Speak Britannia, about accents and dialects and how they feature in contemporary UK hip hop music and youth culture.
It was fascinating – especially when discussing the link between accent and authenticity, or being ‘for real’.
There’s nothing more important in hip hop – being true to your roots and the people you grew up around, rather than pretending to be something you’re not.
In terms of how you ‘spit’, or express yourself verbally in your music, that means rapping or singing in your natural accent. Not an issue if you’re from east or south London (“safe, blud”), where grime and other urban music genres first emerged – those accents are the signature vocal sound of UK urban.
But what if being ‘for real’ means spitting in a Scottish, a Bristol or a Yorkshire accent? It turns out there’s a real contradiction in urban music between being authentic and having the right sound for the mainstream.
One section of the program focused on a Scottish MC who was laughed offstage at a contest for rapping in his native accent.
Getting a foot in the door with a Glasgow accent proved so difficult that he went as far as developing an alter ego, an entire fictional persona, who performed in an American accent – and was an instant success. (He later dispensed with the act after losing the will to continue faking it). It seems that urban music, like many cultures, can be deeply conservative about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
Grime MCs and DJs are in a uniquely tricky position, where the sound of the vocals isn’t just about clarity but about whether you are reppin’ the ‘real’ voice of the streets. Think of the radio DJ Tim Westwood, the vicar’s son with the infamous pseudo-rudeboy drawl. It’s a cultural issue, not just a vocal one.
This issue of authenticity comes up a lot with my clients, when I try to describe how accent reduction and speech training fit into a contemporary world where you’re constantly reminded to ‘just be yourself’.
When I meet clients for the first time, they usually start by saying ‘I quite like my accent’. It feels dishonest to try and suppress their natural sound, because it’s part of who they are and where they’ve come from.
They’re right to feel this way. I don’t teach people how to ‘put on’ a British accent, because how are you meant to be confident and speak from the heart in your professional and personal life if you feel like a fake?
Thankfully, I can’t think of many professions where it’s still considered essential to speak with a flawless English accent (actors in Downton Abbey, perhaps?) The British have generally become more accustomed to different accents from their newsreaders, their doctors and their bank managers. Regrettably some prejudice still exists: I shared an article on social media recently about how ‘accentism’ is still prevalent in Britain. I don’t feel that individuals should be expected to pander to these prejudices, but I think it’s important to remember what I say to most clients: that a good communicator doesn’t make her listeners work too hard to understand her.
I always reassure people that accent reduction is about clarity: finding a sound that is still ‘you’, but that most people can easily understand. Most English speakers, especially in London and the bigger cities, can cope with different accents, but the easier it is for them, the more likely they are to get what you’re saying, and not be distracted by how you say it.
Then you’ll not only be ‘for real’, you’ll be live-o fam, y’get me?
No, didn’t think so…