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.
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:
The Accent Reduction Institute’s mission statement is a little deceiving. It states, Eliminating Language Barriers While Helping People Maintain Their Unique Cultural Identity. While this certainly isn’t untrue, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Our “M.O.” is actually bigger than it may appear: bring joy to our clients, joy to their organizations, joy to their clients, and joy to our faculty and curriculum writers. That’s our goal. Our objective. Our end all, be all. To borrow from the French…creating joy is our raison d’etre.
Why all the fuss about something as touchy-feely as “joy”? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to expect an American accent training company‘s objective to be more along the lines of…helping people be more productive? Or giving people the tools they need to better communicate their professional expertise to colleagues and clients? Or enabling our international workforce to raise the bottom line of their companies? Of course! But these objectives are the logical consequences of what we do (accent modification), not why we do it.
Our mission statement speaks to our more fundamental goal of helping people fully participate in their own lives. Most of our program participants sought training because they were frustrated by the constant question, “What? What did you say? Can you repeat that? I don’t understand what you’re saying.” By the time they found us, they’d already shut down a part of themselves.
If you had two proposals in front of you, one from a company whose employees held back from full participation and one whose employees were eager to jump in and joyously innovate, problem solve, and assist…which company would you choose? Perhaps the companies that hire us may even say that Joy is their ultimate ROI as well…after their personnel complete pronunciation training these companies get, and retain, customers who appreciate working with them.
I recently asked our Director of Curriculum and Training, Barb Niemann, about the highlight of her year. Barb’s answer? “Our participants can now speak English without a language barrier. They’re happy. Their managers are happy. Their clients are happy. I’m thrilled.”
ARI faculty provide communication training for a wide variety of organizations: those in corporate America, academia, the US Department of Defense, non-profit community agencies, etc. And, without exception, there’s an emphasis on a new area of proficiency that reflects the diversity of our current task/workforces: cultural competency.
What in the world is that? What does it mean to be culturally competent? In pursuit of an answer, I’ve found that while the specifics change from organization to organization, the phrase always includes a common objective: understanding the culture of those with whom we work and serve in order to create partnership and collaboration.
There are all kinds of ways to become culturally competent:
- We can learn business protocols, dining etiquette, and greeting and leave-taking customs.
- We can learn about religious perspectives and historical experiences that shape views of family, community, and team building.
- We can also learn how language reflects people’s views of culture and their place in it. If language is the vehicle that conveys information, culture is the lens we use to interpret it.
Being culturally competent means knowing how to speak in ways that go beyond simply exchanging information; it means using language to build successful relationships. How can we demonstrate cultural competency in our diverse workplaces? A good starting point is to hit ‘delete’ on that one phrase we habitually use when we don’t understand someone’s accent: “What? What did you say?” While ill-will is certainly not intended, often this phrase does more harm than good. The message behind the message, the meta-message, is, “I don’t understand because you have a problem speaking.” Not helpful for establishing goodwill and camaraderie. Instead of “what did you say”, try, “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand. Could you please repeat that for me?” The meta-message is altogether different.
In the world of corporate training, accent modification is a new industry. It started showing up on the Human Resources radar about ten years ago. Even now, I’m frequently asked, “Accent modification? What is that?” So it’s not surprising there is substantial curiosity with regard to process… how accent modification actually works.
Picture courtesy of: http://www.babble.com/CS/blogs/strollerderby/2008/02/01-07/Mary_Poppins.jpg
The old method, aka the Mary Poppins method, goes something like this: listen, repeat; listen, repeat; listen, repeat. I can hardly imagine anything more boring. Perhaps more importantly, this method doesn’t work. We now know, mostly from the fields of cognitive neurology and neuro-linguistics, that adult pronunciation learners acquire new skills when engaged in an interactive process that includes three modalities:
Integrating these three components of skill acquisition is the fastest way to learn new speech patterns, and to be able to use them on a “second nature” basis.
Have you ever noticed that when we learn a new language, we always understand more of what is being said than we ourselves are able to say? Auditory discrimination comes before verbal proficiency. So step one in accent modification is helping people discriminate between sounds in English and sounds in their native language. The process doesn’t stop there, which is why “listen and repeat” won’t work.
For adults, in order to learn a new speech pattern, we need to be taught exactly where to place our tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw. Talking about a technique doesn’t do the trick; seeing the placement and feeling the position of our speech apparatus are non-negotiable components of accent modification methodology. Learning a language is an experiential process; by integrating the three processes above, we move from “How does it work?” to “Aha! This works!”