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.
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.
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.