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.
“I just don’t get it. I’ve been here for 23 years and I still have a heavy accent. How come?” I heard this question last week when I was sitting next to a businessman on a flight. He was super smart, savvy, and an “in on the know” professional. His question didn’t surprise me. Probably because I’ve been asked it somewhere north of 200 times.
So why is it that mastering the American accent seems to be so agonizingly difficult? (It’s not… but we’ll get to that later.) Part of the reason has to do with how we learn language in the first place. Let’s begin at the beginning: infancy.
Newborns and babies have a pressing and exceptionally important task at hand. They need to figure out the difference between sounds, and the sounds of their “language”. They need to differentiate between the sound “s” makes in the word “measure”, and the sound a car motor makes. They’re similar, but certainly not the same. In other words, the first step to language learning is sound discrimination. Now over time, babies and toddlers master this critical step and their powerful little brains start weeding out random sounds from those spoken by their caregivers. This process is called NLNC, Native Language Neural Commitment.
The end result is that by the time we all reach adulthood, it’s painfully difficult to hear the fine nuances between certain foreign language sounds that don’t exist in our own language. See if you can hear the difference in pronunciation between the Zulu words “to whitewash” and “to fix”.
How about between the German words “to offer” and “to pray”?
Or between the words for “palace” and “dirt” in Gujarati? I’ve tried and tried, but I just can’t hear the difference.
Which takes us back to why, without instruction, it can be extraordinarily challenging to learn English pronunciation. Some adult learners simply may not have the context to hear the difference between sounds that are (frustratingly) similar. Kind-of like how the above words are for the American ear. And if you can’t “hear” a sound, it’s awfully difficult to produce it.
That’s one of the reasons why, for adult foreign language learners, pronunciation can be an extraordinary challenge. Yet our accent coaches have worked with upwards of 1,000 adult learners and not one person has ever failed to learn how to make each and every English vowel and consonant. Part of the trick is showing people how to “feel” sounds. While this may seem crazy, it means helping people become aware of how it feels when they accurately place their tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw when pronouncing new sounds. There are other tricks of the trade too. If you’re interested, ask us for more. We’ll be happy to pass them along.
By now, the demise of Tiger Woods is a story well-known to the American public. Yet, why was Tiger able to earn (and lose) millions of dollars in endorsement deals? For one thing, his eloquence allowed him to communicate with his fan base. People felt as though they were able to connect with him, and they admired him as an athlete and as an individual. So why did Tiger succeed when other phenomenal athletes don’t get the same deals? I’m left thinking of another Tiger, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, an excellent baseball player whose endorsements lag far behind Woods’. Could it be Cabrera’s accent that differentiates these two sports stars? A recent study conducted by the University of Chicago (and funded by the National Science Foundation) found that native language speaking participants perceived people with heavy accents as difficult to understand and therefore interpreted their speech as being less truthful. So does this mean Tiger Woods became a huge celebrity largely because of his communication skills, and if so, what is the implication for the many athletes who have heavily accented speech?