If I were ‘fluent’ in a foreign language, most people would take it to mean that I’d mastered the grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, and pronunciation rules of that language. I’d like to suggest another aspect of language proficiency that isn’t typically included, one that deals with the relationship between language and culture.
Linguists call this often neglected, but absolutely essential, part of speech, ‘phatic’ communication. This is the area of discourse that has nothing to do with requesting information (interrogatives), or telling someone what to do (imperatives), or giving new information (declaratives). ‘Phatic’ communication falls into a more elusive category… the realm of using language to build, maintain, and negotiate relationships. Expressions like “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” “you’re welcome,” and “please” are all examples of ‘phatic’ communication.
In our multicultural workforce, sometimes the intent of our message gets lost in translation. For example, when we use idiomatic expressions that mean, “you’re welcome,” we may lose the sense of gratitude. “You’re welcome” sounds sincere and appreciative. Can’t you just feel the sincerity in the phrase? Yet other phatic expressions – “don’t worry about it,” “not a problem,” “no big deal,” “just trying to be helpful,” “it was nothing” -hardly do justice to a good ol’ fashioned “you’re welcome.”
The American workforce, with its international supply chain, is becoming more and more diverse. Corporate training now reflects an unprecedented focus on communication training programs. And language skills are now rightly viewed as being either “enablers” or “disablers.” Language can facilitate collaboration and innovation, or isolation and stagnation.
We know that the top Fortune 100 companies are also the organizations with the strongest diversity and inclusion programs. My goal is to help companies leverage the connection between language and culture to increase productivity, mind-share, and the bottom line.
One way we do this is to provide communication training programs that get people thinking about word choice. When we speak, what do we convey in addition to basic information? What is the message behind the message? Is it ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘no problem’? To a non-native English speaker, the phrases may suggest two very different sentiments. Practice English, whether it’s your first language or second, using ‘phatic’ speech that conveys the very best of your intentions. Use language to create bridges of communication.
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.
What would you think if you woke up one day and suddenly your usual speech patterns were replaced by a seemingly foreign accent? Suddenly, the ‘you’ that everyone knows and loves has disappeared! How much of your identity would you feel was compromised? For me, the worst part would be not having the ability to choose which accent to adopt and not knowing how to turn it on and off at will. (At the Accent Reduction Institute, we call this ‘code switching’ and it’s part of our accent neutralization training program.)
Although the scenario described above may seem like something from a children’s novel, for sufferers of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) it’s an unpleasant reality. The syndrome usually occurs after a brain injury, trauma, or stroke, and it’s suggested that the best diagnostic team for the rare disorder includes a neurologist, radiologist, neuropsychologist, clinical psychologist, and speech-language pathologist. That’s quite a team for a disorder that impacts a person’s speech. Perhaps this speaks (no pun intended) to the complexity of the language learning process.
So what’s the big deal about a new speech pattern or accent? I think the core of the issue is that personal identity, how we portray ourselves to others, and how others see us, includes our language style. And even if FAS doesn’t make us feel different about ourselves, it may impact the way others perceive us. Professor Nick Miller states, “The notion that sufferers speak in a foreign language is something that is in the ear of the listener rather than the mouth of the speaker.” Like everything else in life, it’s all about choice. If I could choose which accent to use and when, and therefore how to impact my ability to communicate with others…Bingo! I’d be the first one to sign up!
There’s a fascinating article in the Telegraph.co.uk about humans subconsciously imitating other people’s accents. According to Prof. Lawrence Rosenblum of the University of California, Riverside, people consistently imitate the speech patterns of total strangers as a means to ‘affiliate and empathize’ with other people. Rosenblum claims this “unintentional imitation could serve as social glue”.
Interesting. Is the reason we imitate another person’s accent really to show empathy? Maybe not. I think our desire to imitate another’s accent is far more basic than that. Language evolved to solve a social problem: how to collaborate in order to reach a shared objective. In our line of work, we see this day in and day out. People take pronunciation courses so they can be better understood by their clients and colleagues. They know their message is important and want to make sure others receive it. This is what effective communication is all about.
Pronunciation is about clear communication. It’s as important as grammar and vocabulary. Think of the following situation: It’s 15,000 years ago and a group of Cro-Magnon hunters are planning their next move. The leader says to his pals, “You guys wait ON THE SIDE of the cave, spears at the ready, and I’ll get the bear to wake up and see what’s going on.” Now let’s add an accent to the mix. Think if his buddies had heard “You guys wait on the INSIDE of the cave and I’ll get the bear to wake up and see what’s going on”. I’d imagine the results wouldn’t be as satisfying.
Not withstanding the role of empathy in the “human condition”, I believe accents are all about understanding and being understood. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all really want?
I went to a fantastic conference last week sponsored by the Human Resources Association of Greater Detroit and this very topic was addressed by the keynote speaker, Dr. Shirley Davis. Dr Davis is the Chief Diversity Officer of SHRM (Society of Human Resource Management), headquartered in Washington DC. To say she’s passionate about creating inclusive environments is an understatement. And she’s passionate about going about it in the most logical way possible: to present the business case. Here are some facts that she shared with us:
- As our baby-boomers are leaving the workforce, we’ll see a disproportionate number of positions that require highly educated, talented professionals. Many of these workers will be from culturally diverse backgrounds.
- When workers feel marginalized or under-appreciated, rates of attrition rise. The cost of providing professional development training to a current employee far outweighs the cost of a new hire.
- Members of our new-immigrant workforce bring to industry unique vantage points. Their innovations and perspectives leads to product development that better reflect the wants and needs of diverse populations…populations with rising purchasing power. According to recent data, as of 2007 the Asian American Market had $400 billion of spendable income; the Hispanic Market had $982 billion.
What does any of this have to do with accent neutralization or accent comprehension training? My thinking goes as follows…
Diversity refers to numbers-increasing the number of personnel from diverse backgrounds. Inclusion refers to getting each constituent of a diverse workforce to work together effectively, productively, and in ways that benefit both the organization and its employees. Communication is a two way street (it takes both a speaker and a listener) and it’s a key determinant of job performance. When we provide accent reduction on one side of the yellow line and accent comprehension on the other, the junctions become ‘roadblock free’. Performance goes up as does an organizations’ bottom line.
So, from an ethical standpoint, is it essential to provide professional development training in order to help every member of our diverse workforce advance? Of course it is. It’s also sound business strategy.