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Changing Your Accent for an International Audience

Bruna Martinuzzi 

October 12, 2018

“There is no such thing as an ugly accent, like there’s no such thing as an ugly flower,” said David Crystal, renowned author and lecturer on the English language. I agree. Accents are beautiful, and I certainly wouldn’t want to lose mine.

There’s also no such thing as a “correct” accent. They’re all correct; they’re just different. But, if your accent interferes with how people understand your message, these differences can turn into problems.

Here’s an example. When I was on vacation in the U.K., many years ago, I went into the local bank in the village where I was staying. I told the teller that I wanted to cash some traveler’s checks.

“Are they stolen?” she asked.

I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. “Stolen?” I repeated, speaking a little louder than normal. “What do you mean?”

“I said, ‘ARE THEY STERLING?'” she responded, raising her voice to match mine. She seemed annoyed and incredulous that I’d heard “stolen,” and not “sterling.” I asked my husband later, and he said, “I distinctly heard ‘stolen’ too, the first time she said it.”

Accents and Customer Service

In a customer service situation, an accent that’s hard to understand can adversely affect the customer experience. Data compiled by Zendesk in the U.S. shows that customer satisfaction with call centers declined when the company’s agents had foreign accents. And research from the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) suggests that a foreign accent may make it more difficult for the listener to process and remember spoken information.

When people can’t understand what’s being said, they can become confused and frustrated. This can result in negative reviews. In the long run, it can damage a company’s reputation, and even its revenue.

And the problem isn’t confined to foreign accents. Sometimes, even native speakers of the same language can find one another’s regional accents difficult to interpret. And many languages also have different dialects, which don’t just sound different, but have different grammar and vocabulary, too.

Identity and Discrimination

Regional accents and dialects can also give rise to discrimination. Research in the U.K., for example, showed that 28 percent of British people felt that they had been discriminated against because of their regional accent, while no less than 80 percent of employers admitted to making discriminatory decisions based on regional accents.

So, if you have a foreign accent, or a strong regional accent, what should you do? The world is a mosaic of different accents: should we all work on eliminating them? Even if this were easy to do, it wouldn’t be everyone’s preferred choice. Eliminating an accent requires enormous effort, and for many of us it would mean giving up a part of our identity and our culture, too.

Nonetheless, if your accent is hard for your audience to understand, it does makes sense to address the issue. Speaking in a way that is clearly understood helps you to connect with others better. It reduces the frustration that others may experience in trying to understand what you’re saying. And, most importantly, the ability to communicate effectively with others can pay great dividends for your career.

12 Tips for Clearer Communication

If you are concerned that you can’t be clearly understood at work because of your accent, there is plenty that you can do to reduce or modify it.

Consider the following tips:

1. Practice With a Native Speaker

If you’re giving a presentation, ask a trusted colleague or friend who is a native speaker (or who has a local accent) to check that you’re pronouncing your words correctly.

If you can’t meet in person, you can record your presentation in PowerPoint, or into a video app on your phone, and ask your trusted partner how you can improve your delivery.

2. Speak More Slowly

When you’re delivering a presentation, or talking in a meeting, speak slightly slower than you would in a conversation with a friend. Add brief pauses of a second or so after key phrases, especially for essential points that you want the audience to focus on and remember.

3. Add Key Points to Your Slides

I don’t advocate adding too much text to your slides, but if your accented speech is difficult to understand, spelling out your key points can help your listeners to follow what you’re saying.

This is a useful strategy if you have trouble pronouncing particular words. If the slide appears as you speak, the audience will generally know what you’re doing, and they will appreciate your efforts to help them understand.

4. Learn the Idioms

In my salad days (see, I just used an idiom!), I worked for an airline that employed British pilots. When I was trying to figure out the solution to a catering problem, the pilot suggested that I “use my loaf.” Being relatively new to the English language at that time, it took me a few seconds to realize that this meant I should use my common sense. This has stayed with me as a good example of how knowing the local idioms can make communication more immediate.

Luckily, there are many websites where you can learn idioms. Using English (British idioms), Phrase Finder (American idioms), and the Glossary of Canadian English are good places to start. But, remember that idioms are often regional or cultural in nature, too. So, if you’re not sure, seek advice from the locals!

5. Take an Accent Modification Class

If you’re serious about changing the way you speak, and you’re prepared to put in the hours, there are many accent reduction classes available. Search for a workshop in your area, or try online classes such as those offered by Udemy.

6. Use Online Pronunciation Resources

There’s a wealth of resources online that can help you to improve your pronunciation in many languages. Check out sites such as BBC – The Sounds of English, and Rachel’s English (for American English).

7. Work With a Speech Therapist

Some certified speech therapists are also qualified accent reduction specialists. As well as teaching you to modify your accent, they can help you to avoid some of the pitfalls of speaking a second language. These pitfalls include words that have the same spelling but different meanings, depending on inflection – protest and protest, for example. (You can find more examples here.)

In some places, accent reduction services may even be covered by your organization’s extended health insurance, provided you work with a certified speech therapist (this is the case in Vancouver, Canada, where I reside).

8. Watch TV!

Watching TV shows, movies, or YouTube videos with closed captions is an enjoyable and relatively effortless way to hear the way that native speakers pronounce their words. It’s not the most conventional approach, but some people have learned whole new languages this way!

9. Use an Online Dictionary That Provides Audio

At dictionary.com, you get not only the written definition of English words, but also their audio pronunciation. If the word has two different pronunciations for two different meanings, you get audio for both.

The Cambridge Dictionary, meanwhile, gives you both the U.K. and the U.S. pronunciation of English words.

10. Be Inspired by Successful Accented Speakers

If you decide to work on softening your accent, guard against losing confidence in who you are. Take inspiration from the many highly successful people who speak with an accent. As an example, watch how Greek-American author and businesswoman, Arianna Huffington, refers to her accent at the start of this presentation.

11. Practice Public Speaking

Toastmasters is an international organization, with clubs in 143 countries, where you can practice public speaking. Whether or not you need to speak in public for your job, joining Toastmasters can help you to improve your communication skills. It’s also a great opportunity to talk with native speakers, and to receive constructive feedback in a friendly, supportive environment.

12. Provide Training for Your Employees

If you’re a human resources professional tasked with hiring customer service agents or other front-facing employees, consider offering them English articulation classes. Many of the training vendors in this field provide corporate solutions.

Patience and Empathy

We all encounter accented speakers in all workplaces – whether it’s at the bank, the office, or the store. And all of us need to be more adaptable to this new reality. And we need to understand that we all have an accent, no matter where we’re from.

Above all, we should have the patience and empathy to accept that everyone needs to make a living, and that no one in business chooses to speak in a way that is not readily understood. The next time you feel irritated by someone who has an accent that you find hard to understand, give them a chance. Open your ears, and your heart.

For more advice on giving presentations as an accented speaker, check out Bruna Martinuzzi’s book, Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations.

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