Today I’m bringing you a new feature of my blog: special posts written by guests with unique communication expertise. This post was written by Lynda Katz Wilner of Successfully Speaking. Lynda’s full bio and links to her work can be found at the end of this post. Enjoy!
When is an Accent a Problem?
Most of us strive to achieve excellent communication skills. We know that it can be a deciding factor when searching for jobs and promotions. The workplace is rich with diversity, including many regional dialects and foreign accents. Those who speak English as a second or third language have additional challenges in communication. Perhaps they are proficient in English, but their accent may interfere with effective communication, affecting their professional success and future opportunities.
Accents are often charming and may even add credibility to certain professions such as travel specialists, waiters, maitre d’s, etc. However, when the accent disrupts communication, particularly within job responsibilities, accent modification training should be considered. The goal is not to eliminate an accent; we all have accents; the goal should be to modify the speech in such a way that the individual can make himself or herself understood. Speech becomes “listener friendly.” In fact, we are teaching a new accent, e.g., a North American accent.
What is an Accent?
When individuals speak a second or third language, they often use the melody, stress, and rhythm patterns of their first language. In addition, mouth muscles and structures (lips, tongue, jaw) are often influenced by the first language and this will affect the ability to speak like a native English speaker. An accent is the result of using the first language patterns while speaking another language.
What makes up an Accent?
There are three main components:
1) Consonants – Certain North American English sounds may not exist in one’s native language. As a result, the non-native speaker may produce the English sound using their native language repertoire of sounds or approximations of the sound, e.g., “dis”/this, lake/rake, genetics/generics. Endings of words may be dropped if the native language does not use final consonants, e.g., “tha-”/that, “firs-”/first. Even the spelling of words may confuse the non-native English speaker, e.g., chorus, cough, calm, thumb, tissue. The inability to link words together also interferes with the clarity of the message, e.g., “next-uh-time.”
2) Vowels – One’s native language may not have all of the vowels that exist in the North American English language. As a result, the unfamiliar English vowels may be produced with a vowel sound from the individual’s native language, e.g., live vs. leave, cup vs. cop, Luke vs. look. This not only confuses the listener, but may also embarrass the speaker. In addition, the idiosyncratic spelling of English may confuse the non-native English speaker and affect the pronunciation of words, e.g., author, laugh, blood, food.
3) Stress and Intonation – There are rules in American English that are not typically taught to native English speakers. However, non-native speakers need to master them if they choose to adopt a North American accent. In North American English, syllables or words are stressed with a higher pitch, louder voice, and longer vowel. If pitch changes are not used, the person may sound uninterested, abrupt, or angry. Here are some stress patterns to consider:
- Syllable stress – stressing the correct syllable in a word, e.g., “develop” vs. “devil up”
- Word stress – stressing the correct part of a word, e.g., CARkeys vs. “car KEYS”
- Sentence intonation – stress one key word in each thought group or phrase, e.g., “The meeting is at FOUR.” Too much stress will sound awkward. A rising pitch at the end of the sentence is only used for “yes” or “no” questions, or when expressing uncertainty, e.g., “The meeting is at four” would be interpreted as a question or lack of conviction. This is not the case for all languages.
What is involved in Accent Modification Training?
After a careful analysis of the individual’s speech patterns, a customized training program with specific goals is designed for the individual. For those not in the Maryland area, Successfully Speaking conducts live web-based distance training for individuals and small groups. Check out our free pronunciation videos at http://www.eslrules.com/videos/.
Let’s remember, we all have accents and they are a big part of our identity. We simply want to make sure we communicate effectively!
Lynda Katz Wilner is a corporate communication specialist and speech and language pathologist in the Baltimore/Washington, DC area in the United States. She is the director and founder of Successfully Speaking, helping individuals from diverse backgrounds achieve excellence in communication. She is also co-founder of ESL RULES, a company that develops and publishes training materials for non-native English speakers. Learn more about Lynda at www.successfully-speaking.com.