A Language Divided by an Ocean

Great Britain and America: “Two Countries Separated by a Common Language”
-Oscar Wilde

Last month I spoke at the 2012 NATO eLearning Conference where delegates from member nations discussed ‘best practices’ for online learning. My presentation, “Delivering Training to Multinational Audiences” sparked an important question, germane to both online and onsite training: “What do you do when the same word has different meanings depending on what side of the Atlantic you’re on?” For example, the word “boot” in British English describes what Americans would call the trunk of a car, the word “hire” means “to rent” in British English and “to employ” in American English, and while “to luck out” is a wonderful thing in America (where it means to have great luck) it’s an awful thing in Britain (where it means to run out of luck.) To get an appreciation for just how many words and phrases fall into this category (thousands upon thousands), whole books and anthologies have been written on the topic (see Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English by Davies Christopher and Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions: Making Sense of Transatlantic English, by Orin Hargraves). To test your own cross-border knowledge, try an easy and fun online game that measures how good you are at determining whether someone’s from the U.S. or the U.K. The answer certainly surprised me!

Mixture of American and UK Flags

This challenge isn’t limited to just British-to-American discourse or, for that matter, South African-to-American, Irish-to-American, Australian-to-American and, believe it or not, American-to-American communication. Hence, per the latter, the publication of D.A.R.E –the Dictionary of American Regional English, to help those of us living and working in the U.S. who might otherwise be lost in translation. DARE is a multi-volume reference work that documents words, phrases, and pronunciations that vary from one place to another across the United States. It even includes a map of “regionalisms.”

Which leads us back to the original question…With so many people speaking correct, yet significantly different, English, how can we develop courseware so that learning is as easy and effective as possible? We like to recommend using what ARI has coined, “The Hover Solution.” It works like this… Comb through the material and cross reference each word, and especially all idiomatic phrases, to see if there are dialectical or regional differences. When you find them, indicate these words/phrases by either bolding or underlining them. Then allow the learner to hover over the marked word with his/her cursor until the “translation” appears on the screen. It’s an easy fix to a problem that causes communication disconnects day in and day out, all around the globe.

To learn more about creating instructional material for a diverse workforce, please contact us at info@lessaccent.com. To share your own “best practices,” please comment below. Communication is key, and we’re all in this together!

Cool Linguistic Trick to Boost Your Investment Earnings

Who would’ve thought that learning a second language could help in making better business decisions?  According to Boaz Keysar and his team of scientists at the University of Chicago, new research shows that bilingualism, literally, pays off.  Through a series of experiments, Keysar’s team conducted a cross-cultural comparison, recreating six experiments on three continents in five different languages (English, Korean, French, Spanish and Japanese).  In each experiment, test subjects were asked to choose between two options.  The options measured the degree to which a person was risk-averse to loss.  In one test, subjects demonstrated they were risk averse to loss (makes sense…who wants to lose?) and in the other test, they showed they were, surprisingly, risk averse to gain.  Interestingly, people were risk averse to gain when they were presented with scenarios presented in their first language, and risk averse to loss when the same scenarios were given in their second language.  Intuitively, we’d expect the exact opposite.   Why the flip-flop?  According to Boaz and his team, speaking in a second language requires more emotional distance than speaking in a native tongue.  Test subjects were able to think bias-free.

As if this isn’t enough, there are additional perks to bilingualism; one of them being that bilingualism confers protection against the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.   According to the National Institute of Health, bilingual patients are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 4.3 years later and report the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than monolingual patients. On the other side of the age spectrum, bilingualism also seems to help young children master higher levels of self-control and better understand abstract rules than their monolingual peers.

Greater chances for financial gain, delayed symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and kids with greater self-control…a veritable Three-For-One.  Not bad!

For those who’d like to learn another language, and who happen to work in a multinational organization, I’d like to suggest a good starting place.  Begin by learning to say “thank you” in each language spoken in your workplace. The benefits far outweigh the time commitment needed to do so.  There’s simply nothing like hearing someone say “thank you” in your own language.  It helps create a personal relationship that facilitates more open communication.  (For a complete list of how to say ‘thank you’ in foreign languages, see: www.omniglot.com/language/phrases/thankyou.htm.)  Mastering this simple phrase demonstrates you’ve made the effort to learn something about your colleague/client.  It shows you’re taking responsibility for part of the communication process.  A priceless message.

Why Learning a New Accent Isn’t Always Lemon Squeesy*!

We’re halfway into the 2012 Summer Olympics and the U.S. athletes have certainly done America proud. Take Michael Phelps, honoring the U.S. with his 18th gold medal, Gabby Douglas standing proud and bemedaled on the award stand, and 17-year-old boxer Claressa Shields beaming with golden grace.

But let’s have a look at one skill the U.S. athletes have yet to master…the Cockney accent. In an attempt to pay homage to their London hosts, several Olympians displayed their affection with a resolute, yet miserably hopeless, attempt to adopt their hosts’ native accent. If you want to laugh along with Team USA, check out their admirable, albeit unsuccessful, attempts. As much as I’m rooting for soccer player Heather O’Reilly, a gold in Cockney Accent certainly isn’t in the making.

In the athlete’s defense, the phrases chosen for the task are hardly “textbook”. They’re a wonderful slice of Cockney idioms, phrases that typically rhyme with the word the person wants to say; for example, ‘telephone’ becomes the phrase ‘dog and bone.’  The athletes, then, have to contend with a double whammy: getting their tongues around Cockney vowels and consonants, and their heads around the meaning of the phrases. The following idiom, and one that stumped Olympian after Olympian, makes the case: “Would you like some John Cleese with your uncle Fred, or just a little bit of talk and mutter?” actually means, “Would you like some cheese with your bread or just a bit of butter?”

Like accent learners of any language, the 2012 Olympians’ attempts demonstrate the difficulty of trying to acquire a new accent simply by using a “repeat after me” methodology. It doesn’t work, and especially not for adult learners. Given the neural wiring of our brains, adults need specific instructions. We need to be taught where to place our tongue, teeth, jaw, and lips to pronounce new sounds with which we may not be familiar. We need to be shown what it looks like and feels like…in effect, to “see” and “feel” a sound. Can it be done? Absolutely!

There are thousands of non-native English speakers who have successfully completed American accent training…and each one of them deserves a medal!

*More examples of Cockney slang.

Tearing Down the Bamboo Ceiling

I had a wake-up call last week while attending the Conference Board’s 2012 Corporate Diversity and Inclusion Conference in Chicago.  The two day event included informative sessions led by nearly every contingent of the American workforce.  Except one.  The Asian voice was missing.  I couldn’t figure out why, and I couldn’t let the question go.

As I started looking for answers, I began to think there was probably some connection with the fact that, sadly, Asians make up roughly 20% of the workforce but hold less than 2% of executive jobs at Fortune 500 companies.  And, according to the Alliance for Board Diversity Census, Asians hold just 2.1% of all Board seats in Fortune 500 companies.

This phenomenon, known as The Bamboo Ceiling, is part of a national dialogue being discussed in Fortune Magazine, Crain’s New York, The Atlantic, and numerous other publications.  The consensus seems to be that the numbers above are partly due to a cultural discomfort with, essentially, “tooting one’s own horn.”   While the absence of “voicing” one’s accomplishments may be typical in the Asian workplace, it’s the complete antithesis of what’s expected of rising stars in corporate America.

As consultant Jane Chang of Global Novations put it,

“Asian-Americans don’t grow up promoting ourselves; our parents do that for us. Most of us are uncomfortable with the idea of marketing and pitching our work, let alone building a network or having internal champions, common strategies for career advancement. We’ve been brought up with the ethics of keep your head down, work hard, and you will make money….We are not accustomed to speaking up. Thus, we are seen as lacking leadership skills – we can’t lead if we don’t offer our opinions.”

Jane Hyun, author of the book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians” sums it up nicely by comparing two common idioms.  The first is the Chinese expression, ‘The loudest duck gets shot’; the second is the American saying, ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease.’

 Accent challenges compound this problem.  It makes sense.  Being constantly asked to repeat oneself is hardly incentive for demonstrating leadership skills like being outgoing and engaging in healthy conflict.

There are, however, helpful tools for acquiring the skills needed to “speak up” in ways that leadership takes note of and rewards.  One, of course, is participating in an accent neutralization professional development program.  The other is participating in a local Toast Masters (or similar such) organization.  Many corporations have in-house chapters and some are designed specifically for non-native English speakers.  A little bit of constructive coaching goes a very long way.

ARI’s objective is to help non-native English speakers “speak up” with clarity and confidence.  The only way to reap the benefits of an inclusive environment is to tear down the bamboo, and every other, ceiling.  How else can we see those rising stars shine?

Dictators Promote Understanding

It’s been almost seven years since I received our first inquiry from the American Association of Medical Transcriptionists (AAMT).  These are the folks who listen to dictations by physicians and nurses (who, I came to learn, are fondly referred to as ‘dictators’).  They then transcribe the audio dictations to written format.

The AAMT had a problem and they wanted to know if the Accent Reduction Institute could help.  With nearly 35% of our U.S. practicing physicians being non-native English speakers, understanding some of the dictations could be quite a challenge.  A medical transcriptionist (MT) could hit ‘rewind’ repeatedly, but without an actual process for deciphering unfamiliar speech patterns, they’d be stuck.  The MT’s compared it to the well known analogy of rocking in a rocking chair.  It gives you something to do, but you don’t get anywhere.

Thus, accent comprehension was born.

Last week I provided our process for understanding accented speech to an organization whose workforce comes from all around the globe.  Afterwards, one of the attendees sent me the following note.

My name is Kathleen and my father was a second generation American of Polish descent, his parents only spoke Polish and he only went up to the 6th grade.  He could not pronounce the “th” in Kathleen – he always called me Katleen. Now I understand why.  It is worth it just to have that understanding.  I have to confess that when people would use the term “dumb Polak” I thought they were referring to my father because he did not know how to pronounce my name.

I gasped when I read this.  Very painful.  The prejudicial slur is intolerable; the misunderstanding it created is heartbreaking.  BTW, my grandmother is also of Polish descent, and the immigrant experience in America is both a personal and professional one for me.  Perhaps this is one reason why helping people find their voice has been my lifelong passion.

When the AAMT made that first call nearly seven years ago, I’m not sure they meant to have such a far reaching impact on people’s personal lives.  To this day, I’m grateful for that call.

Imitating an accent: Can it be done without mockery?

You know that feeling you get when you hear someone trying to imitate another person’s accent? Usually you’re so embarrassed for the person you just want to hide under the nearest table. Or, worse, the person’s attempts at mockery are so offensive you cringe with repugnance. It’s a rare individual who can take on another’s accent and make you feel like you’re speaking with one of your friends and colleagues. And yet it can be done. If you’ve ever seen Tony Award winning playwright and actress Sarah Jones, you know what I mean.

Sarah Jones has a gift. While playing the character of Ms. Ling (from China), Sunita (from India), or Habiba (from Jordan), all with near-native pronunciation, Jones tackles some of the most difficult issues of the day – homelessness, immigration, business competition — without stereotyping or marginalizing anyone. In fact, listening to her characters makes you think you’re watching a little piece of yourself. Not an easy task.

Sarah Jones
Picture from http://sarahjonesonline.com/photos/

How does she do it? When asked this question at a recent symposium sponsored by the Business and Finance Committee at the University of Michigan called, ‘Many Voices‘, Ms. Jones answered, “People who play characters… have to… transcend their ‘package’… .You have to be those other people… You have to connect to the humanity of the character.”

That’s the key! By expressing humanity’s shared desire to “have all of what you bring to the world be valued”, Jones conveys her message in a whole gamut of accents but absent any mockery. You don’t get that awful feeling like you can’t believe what you’re hearing and need to find the nearest exit ASAP.

When Jones was asked about her techniques to ‘get into persona’, my ears pricked up immediately. One of them is identical to an approach we use at the Accent Reduction Institute. Jones thinks of a person she respects and admires. She then tries to imitate the way that person conveys empathy and understanding. For her, it’s Lilly Thomas or Meryl Streep. We suggest a similar method in our English pronunciation training programs.

We encourage participants to think of a person whose pronunciation, articulation, and diction they admire. Envisioning being understood easily and with authenticity helps people learn English pronunciation, or acquire new speech patterns in general. If you were to suggest a few role-models for learners of English pronunciation, who would they be? Julia Roberts? President Obama? Check out Sarah Jones’ range of characters in action. It’s hilarious. Not because she mocks her characters, but because they’re a mirror our own selves… accents and all.

Talent Gap. Who, Us?

That’s right. We have a talent gap in this country, and many people don’t even realize it. The definition of a talent gap, also known as a skills gap, is where there are more jobs than qualified people to fill them. It may not be obvious to everyone, but the United States talent gap is real, big, and getting bigger by the moment.

Where are the jobs? If I travel around the state (in my case, Michigan), I don’t see a whole lot of “Hiring” signs. That’s because the talent gap isn’t in manufacturing or services. It’s in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

According to a recent Manpower survey, only 73% of senior human resource managers said they felt their company had the talent it needed to implement its business strategy. And oh by the way, the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics say that between 2006-2016, the STEM fields represent the industries that are growing the fastest. Yikes!

One of the biggest reasons for the disconnect between available jobs and qualified workers is that, for the first time in history, it’s not looking likely the number of workers entering the U.S. labor force will replace the skills soon to be leaving. Baby boomers, who are en route to retirement, account for more than 50% of our current workforce and 25% of workers with STEM degrees. That leaves a lot of soon to be empty seats in fields that are key to company growth and global competition. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security recognizes this as such a serious problem, they’ve created a complete list of DHS, STEM designated degree programs (PDF, 110k).

Foreign Scientist

But not to worry! There’s no need for alarm bells. The seats will in fact be filled by qualified, hard working, well-educated and talented individuals. The difference, however, between tomorrow’s company landscape and yesteryears’, is that many of our co-workers will be foreign born… and non-native English speakers. Today, international PhD students make up 43% of fellow PhD’s in math, 46% in computer sciences, and 51% in engineering. Many of these students would like to stay and, like generations of immigrants before them, contribute to the economic growth and rich cultural fabric of the U.S. workforce.

This leaves a potential challenge for corporate leadership. With people for whom English is a second language, there’s a risk of ineffective communication and alienation, a recipe for “talent disengagement”. Thankfully, this is avoidable. Here are a few techniques everyone can put into practice that make a huge difference in improving collaboration, camaraderie, and productivity:

  • When a co-worker apologizes to you for their “bad English”, tell them: “Your English isn’t bad. You should hear my Chinese, Thai, Spanish, Hindi, fill in the blank!”
  • Learn how to say “thank you” in each of the languages your co-workers speak, and say it!
  • Be patient. English pronunciation isn’t intuitive. Instead of saying, “What? What did you say?” Try, “Could you repeat that for me. I didn’t understand, and I’d like to.”

These short and sweet techniques go a long way in extending the proverbial handshake. It will make the new business climate a warmer one!

Talent Management and the Meta-Message

For those of us who work closely with Talent Managers and Directors of Learning and Development, we need little convincing of the business case for communication training. It makes perfect sense that effective communication is directly proportional to innovation and “mind-share”. In other words, the better we communicate the greater the productivity. And innovation, mind-share, and productivity are the signatures, let’s even call them trademarks, of a free market economy.

While not exclusive to the U.S., Americans can take pride in the “free movement of labor” aspect of its workforce. People are free to move up the ladder not because of social class or familial ties, but because of the unique skill set they bring to an organization and its teams. Talent Managers, Diversity Officers, HR specialists, and Learning and Development folks can especially take pride in their role of ensuring the multicultural talent of our diverse workforce has a level playing field.

Why? Because they’re the ones that promote effective communication programs. These give key talent opportunities to share their expertise with ease and confidence, to get buy-in to new ideas, and to lead others in more effective directions. When this happens, key talent can position and reposition themselves where they, and their organizations, can best maximize their contributions. And even better, what happens when our contributions are noted and valued? We move away from thinking about what’s best for me toward thinking about what’s best for the organization. Everybody wins.

Moving up the promotion ladder

This blog post isn’t an attempt to validate the views of economist Adam Smith or his famous, “The Wealth of Nations”. It’s to recognize the hard, and integral, work that people in charge of communication training bring to their organizations. With specific regard to accent modification, they know that behind every, “What? What did you say?” is an unspoken message conveyed between the listener and his/her speaker. Linguists call this ‘the meta-message’. The meta-message has to do with more than just the meaning of words. It has to do with an implicit, though often unintended, statement about the relationship between the two people speaking. Some people think of this as ‘the message behind the message’. With the example, “What? What did you say?”, the meta-message is clear: You, Mr./Ms. speaker, we have a problem because I can’t understand you.

Accent modification is a relatively new kind of professional development training. At the start of the last decade, there were only a handful of us who left academia to bring it to the private sector. During the early years, the corporate leadership who brought us in were downright brave. They had to defend their budget expenditures on a training program that hadn’t yet amassed the number of participants needed to validate, in any meaningful way, an ROI. (We believe the number needs to be above 1,000 participants who’ve either advanced their careers or had a noticeable impact on their organizations.) It was risky, but corporate leadership took a chance on accent modification; they took a chance on us.

I’d like to make a simple statement to the leadership at corporations, universities, and government agencies who betted on us. I hope both the message and the meta-message are one in the same:

Thank you!

Metaphors: Better than Facts

“Metaphors are much more tenacious than facts.”
~ Paul de Man

Believe it or not, despite our varying degrees of poetic ability, we all try our hand with the poet’s most time honored literary device, metaphor. Metaphor is a technique used to transfer the qualities of one word to another. It seems complicated, but really it’s not. For example, does the following sound familiar? “She has a heart of gold.” Or, “her eyes were shining stars.” Of course, the woman’s heart isn’t really made of gold; nor are her eyes actual celestial bodies. But you get the idea that she’s a kind person with bright and alluring eyes. “Eyes” are, in fact, one of our most favorite ‘metaphorical’ words. Here are a few global perspectives (get the pun?):

Heart

“When soldiers have been baptized in the fire of a battle-field, they have all one rank in my eyes.” Leopold Bonaparte (French)

“The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.” Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (German)

“When I look into the future, it’s so bright it burns my eyes.” Oprah Winfrey (English)

A surprising amount of the English language is rooted in metaphorical associations. Anger is linked to fire, as in “inflammatory remarks” or “consumed by rage.” Love is linked to war, as in “love is a battlefield” or “she fled from his advances“. Another common contrast is “up” versus “down,” where “up” is “good” and “down” is “bad.” It’s usually good when we “grow up”, “stand up”, “rise up”, “team up”, “show up”, and “1-up”, but not so good when we “stand down”, “throw down”, “show down”, “burn down”, or “fall down”. We throw our hands in the air when profits “go up”, but our faces drop when profits “go down”.

One way English speakers can help smooth out communication in multicultural contexts is by using literal ways of talking rather than metaphorical, or non-literal, ways. For non native English speakers, phrasal verbs are often the most difficult to understand. A phrasal verb is when we take a word like “make” and add an adjective like “up”. This creates the phrase “to make up”. The reason verb phrases are confusing is because they often have more than one meaning. In this case, “to make up” can mean to fabricate, to re-do, or to reconcile. How about the phrase “to make out”? Can you think of at least three meanings?

Mastering a second language can be a challenge. There’s a lot that goes into it: grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, and pronunciation. Here’s a tip English speakers can use to make the process easier for others: use as much direct, literal speech as possible. This can take some mindfulness and practice. Americans, including me, love indirect speech. In fact, we use non-literal phrases around the clock, night and day, and 24/7! But if we can get into the habit of using words like “arrive” instead of “show up”, and “give” instead of “hand out”, it’s more likely our message will be understood with ease and confidence. How do we know it’s time to use more poetic license? Listen for when the other person starts using idiomatic expressions and non-literal phrases. When you recognize them… follow their lead!

Hey Jack! Happy Halloween!

Who’s Jack, as in Jack O’Lantern? That’s right. My question wasn’t, “What’s a Jack-o’-lantern”? But instead, who’s this Jack guy and how did he get involved with Halloween?

Jack O'Lantern

Let’s begin by taking a look at the name, Jack. In Medieval Europe, Jack was a slang term for “everyone”. It came from an older form of phrase “everichon” which was often split into “every chone. The expression then changed to “every John” (note the similarity in pronunciation between chone and John). Over time, the next iteration became “every Jack”. Finally, an idiom for “everyone” became “every man Jack of them.” Does the following line sound familiar?

“But I am responsible for the ship’s safety and the life of every man Jack aboard of her.”

It’s straight out of Treasure Island, by Robert Luis Stevenson.

Great. Now we know where the name “Jack” of the Jack-o-lantern came from, but what does it have to do with glowing pumpkins on Halloween? According to tradition, the Irish once carved out root vegetables, placed a lit candle inside, and then diligently put them in their windows the evening before All Saints Day. The eve was known as All Hallow Even. Today we refer to the night before All Saints Day as Halloween. It was believed that lit gourds warded off the souls of the dead, whom the Irish believed carried about on the eve of this holy day.

Let’s pause just for a moment and go back in time to another period: Ancient Rome. Back in the day, the mysterious gas that faintly burns over marshy swampland was then called, ignis fatuus. The direct translation is, “crazy fire”. Now fast forward to Medieval Europe…this “crazy fire” was believed to be aglow with sprites, ghosts, goblins, and wandering souls of the dead. The perfect place, of course, to carry about on All Hallow Evening! The man with the lantern, the Jack-o’-Lantern, came to exemplify a man who carried a lantern across the fiery swamps that eerily glowed nearby.

When the Irish immigrated to America, the custom changed from lit gourds to lit pumpkins. Lighting pumpkins on Halloween is now a revered holiday in the United States, shared by people of all walks of life and cultures. It’s a time for children to dress up in scary or funny costumes, and go door-to-door for sweets and neighborly greetings. It’s a custom that’s lost its earlier supernatural connotations and, instead, was replaced with neighborly cheer and goodwill.

I find it fascinating the way history links people’s customs from the far and wide regions of the world. In this case, from Rome to Ireland to the United States. I also find it fascinating the way pronunciation links peoples and customs the world over. From All Hallows Even to Halloween. And while there may not really be a Jack with a lantern who whisks over swampy waters aglow with sprites and other phantoms, I’d still like to like to use the name Jack for a Halloween greeting:

Wishing every man Jack a very Happy Halloween!