Do you ever worry that you won't be understood because you have a thick accent? You're not alone. Global workforces create diversity of thought, and new approaches to innovation. But they also create communication challenges. Judy Ravin of Accents International is a specialist in helping people pronounce the sounds in English that don’t exist in other languages. Join Elizabeth Bachman and Judy to get concrete strategies and tips for being heard and understood.
My guest is Judy Ravin of Accents International. I’m so happy to have a live guest. It’s not just me. Welcome, Judy.
Thank you, Elizabeth. I am thrilled to be here.
I’m thrilled to have you here. When I was recording the episode called Second Language First impression, if English is not your first language or if you are speaking to people for whom English is not their first language, how do you do that? I realized I had to talk about accent reduction. Would say it’s not accent reduction? It’s more better pronunciation.
That is a perfect definition. Accent reduction is quite a misnomer. If anything, it’s not accent reduction. It’s accent acquisition. We are learning how to pronounce the sounds in one language that doesn’t exist in the speaker’s first language. Yes, accent, for our purposes, means pronunciation. Accent and pronunciation in terms of regular everyday usage is more or less the same for our discussion here.
Before I get started, I have your official bio here. The reason I was so excited to have you here is because I have got a couple of people that I turned to, and you are one of the main ones for those who need to deal with the barrier of not being understood. The official bio is Judy Ravin is the President and Founder of Accents International LLC. She’s also the author of best-selling software-based learning systems for Rapid Language Acquisition.
She’s dedicated to minimizing communication barriers in a global workforce while maintaining each person’s unique cultural identity. She’s earned international recognition for helping Fortune 100 corporations create high-performance teams where everybody is heard and everybody excels. I love it that you are talking about language acquisition and keeping people’s cultural identity. Before I start, let me ask you, why does it matter?
The goal and objective, why was language created? It’s so that the speaker and the listener can understand one another effectively so that they can either collaborate to achieve a joint. It’s objective or even to share information, so the speaker and the listener understand one another. All the language is based on three pillars that make it work. The first is vocabulary so that a word has a shared meaning between the speaker and the listener.
The second is grammar. It’s usage. The way that we use the word, so we know its meaning. The difference between I walk or I walked. Now we have a sense of what that means, and then pronunciation. For example, in Korean where the F doesn’t exist, that sound, it’s important perhaps to learn that so that we can say defend rather than depend, and there are so many examples like that so that we can use syllable stress correctly.
For example, an object is a person, place, or thing. To object means to say no. Two different ways to pronounce a word. Two very different meanings. Pronunciation is essential in every language. The rules are made up. It’s not like the laws of nature. Gravity, for example. The rules change. It’s not good, it’s not bad. It’s made up. It’s a question of being effective, and that’s why I believe pronunciation matters.
I learned this from being on the other side of the street. This was many years ago when I lived in France. When I went to France, pre-touchdown, pre-landing, I thought that my French was great. I have no problem being understood. Not perfect by any means, but effective. What I found out is that when people kept asking me, and they did frequently, “What did you say? Can you repeat that?” They sincerely asked. I had a hard time being understood. My vocabulary, I was using the right words. Grammar, I was using the right words in the right way, but I hadn’t learned French pronunciation, so I wasn’t being effective. You were asking why does it matter in the workforce or the workplace.
In business. Part of the reason why I wanted to do this is because you and I have both seen many cases where someone who’s smart and can write well has a hard time being understood when they speak.
I have been doing this for many years now, so we have seen, myself and our faculty, thousands of cases where people are experts in their field and very competent in their field, but the communication is holding them back from advancing. Why? It’s because communication is key. Communication is the currency of our global economy, and research shows two things.
One, that if someone isn’t easily understood, there is an unconscious judgment that their message isn’t as credible. Not that the person isn’t credible, but the message is not as credible. That’s been proven over and over again whether it be at the Max Planck Institute or it was seminal research at the University of Chicago, the Department of Linguistics. Why? When the brain has to work so hard to decipher meaning our brain goes like this, “Not so sure.” Too much work. It’s true. If we read blurred text, too much work. It’s true if the grammar is off, too much work. The message isn’t as credible. That sadly is an unconscious accent bias that has nothing to do about judgment about a person.
When we were talking about this earlier, I was thinking it’s like the audio equivalent of if somebody sends you a business proposal and a written proposal and it’s full of typos and grammatical errors, you are going to make a judgment about the credibility of what they are offering. If they can’t spell right, then that’s a problem.
Sadly, what do we do when we see that? We either laugh or something. Our brain does that. It pushes the message away regrettably because people have important things to say. In business, you get a seat at the table when you are heard. If you can’t be heard, we don’t get a seat at the table, whatever table that is.
You were talking about some biochemists that you were working with. Very smart people.
They could run and did run circles around me. My pronunciation in English might have been better, but their expertise in biochemistry was phenomenal. These were a group of twelve biochemists at a subsidiary of DuPont called Pioneer Hi-Bred, and they were part of their succession plan at DuPont to move up into leadership positions to lead teams. Why? It’s because they were brilliant but couldn’t lead a team if they couldn’t be understood.
Where were they from?
All of them were from China, so Chinese is their first language. Generally speaking, I don’t need to go on-site. In fact, all of our training is online remotely. We need to see their mouth and they need to see ours, but in this case, I was on-site at their headquarters to meet with leadership of the company, and I met them. They were excited to take the program. They took the program. It’s a ten-session program. At the end, they did phenomenally well. They mastered the sounds in English that don’t occur in Chinese and could convey their messages.
Literally one year later, I visited headquarters again. I met with leadership again and leadership organized a luncheon for me to reconnect with those twelve learners from the previous year. They had all become VPs of this and VPs of that and director of this and manager of that. They had all been promoted. The only thing that had been keeping them back was their accents or pronunciation.
That’s a very important story. You’ve said a few times that English is hard to pronounce. I can certainly understand that. Give us some examples for those of our readers who learned English as babies, and so they take it for granted.
I can give you so many examples. I’d like to start by saying for people who speak English as an additional language, or 2nd language or 3rd, it’s not the person. It’s the language. English, as you had called it, a mishmash. English is messy and it’s illogical that’s because there isn’t one letter in English that is pronounced in only one way. Even B, for example. It’s silent and have so many different examples. When it follows M, climb, thumb, bomb, but let’s take the vowels. There are five we could consider. Why make six vowels in terms of letters? There are 21 vowel sounds in English.
I used to teach Italian diction to opera singers, and you always start with Italian because there were only 5 vowels and only 7 sounds. I didn’t realize there were 21 in English.
There are. The letter O itself makes up about seven of them. Some people say eight. One of the least common pronunciations for the letter O is O like no. We take no and we add a W to it, and then we get now, except when you add a K before the N, O, W and then it stays with know. What is the person to do? The most common vowel sound for the letter is like some, love, and done. Done O, N, E. One, O, N, E but not gone G, O, N, E. O doesn’t exist in most other languages, but it’s everywhere in English.
Long, wrong, gone. O is also O, U, G, H. The second most common is O as in profit. How is this? A profit or loss? They are both O. That’s what non-native English speakers are up against. It’s not the person. It’s the language. When I say English pronunciation is hard, that’s why it’s hard. It’s never the speaker. It’s the language.
I often think that this has to do with English. In some ways, it’s a very low-context language because English has been formed by so many other languages as part of it. It is a mishmash because so many different roots of languages and American English, especially because Europeans colonized America from many different native languages. In English, you have to be very direct because it is assumed that the people you are talking with do not have the same cultural background as you do.
As opposed to the Japanese who “read the air” because if you’ve all grown up in Japan, everybody knows what you are talking about. I’m always interested in the background of things. Let me go back to one of the things I wanted to ask you, which is, if English is hard to pronounce, can’t you just listen and repeat?
English is hard to pronounce if it’s not your first language. Children learn pronunciation of every language in a different way than adults learn pronunciation. Adults, it’s not a question of listen and repeat. Children are much more able to do that. Adults, while English pronunciation is hard, if you don’t have training in it, it is learnable and here’s the methodology. It is not a listen and repeat. This is going to sound counterintuitive or an oxymoron, but what does a sound look like and feel like?
TH the tip of the tongue sticks out between your teeth. That’s what it looks like. What does it feel like? You can feel air moving over your tongue as it’s vibrating or pushing through. What does it look like? What does it feel like? Adult learners, when they recognize that often it’s crazy cool. Often then, they can hear it. At first, they look at it. See how it looks, then how it feels, and then they can self-correct. It’s amazing. I believe we are hard-wired for language acquisition. Our species, humanity depends on oral communication. We can learn pronunciation as adults, but we learn it differently.
I’m thinking about the difference between a voice TH like other and a non-voice TH like path.
How do we feel the difference of these two sounds? If we take our two fingers and we put it on our vocal cords or the base of your throat and we pronounce it voiceless like path or pathway, we’ll notice that the vocal cords stop moving. What was the example that you gave of a voice TH?
Notice that the voice box keeps moving. We can feel the difference.
I’m going to ask everybody, if you are reading this, do yourself a favor and go back and watch the video of this because she showed us a fascinating technique that could be very helpful. When you talk about learning this, you told the story of Korean, which doesn’t have the F sound. Didn’t you have a Korean client who was having trouble with that?
We were working with NATO. We were working with the allied command forces. We were working with a general from Korea who had told us about a story when he had been working through an interpreter. The interpreter, by international law, has to interpret word for word. He had been speaking in English, but the interpreter still broadcasted it louder. He said, “Tell them to defend us,” but it came out, “To depend on us.” Very different meaning.
Instead of the F sound in English, they use the P sound.
Defend he was saying to the others to take action but the interpreter told them they can depend on us. Meaning the Korean troops would be the ones taking the action. It was a joint maneuver, so there weren’t critical consequences, but it was unnerving and it put them behind.
Going back to the workforce. When somebody is having trouble being understood, why don’t they ask for help?
There are two reasons. One is that they are leery and hesitant in a belief that it could make them lose their cultural identity, of which people are very proud, and I believe we all should be proud of our linguistic identity. There is a difference, however, between accent reduction, we like to call it English pronunciation training, and accent elimination. Accent reduction is more about acquiring the sounds that don’t exist in someone’s first language. People will still have an accent. What they won’t have is a communication barrier, but people are hesitant.
There are people that do accent elimination. I don’t know how successful they are, but we don’t and there is a distinction between the two. It’s possible to get help and maintain your unique cultural identity. Our program and many others are 10 to 12 sessions. No program should be more than fifteen sessions. It doesn’t take that long.
You have to invest in yourself.
Practice 10 to 15 minutes a day because we are changing the muscle memory of our mouth, our speech apparatus, but it doesn’t take hundreds of hours and you’ll get accent elimination. We don’t need to be afraid of losing our accent when we reach out for help. The other thing is that this speaks to your question about the difference in methodology of how adults learn, is that listening and repeating doesn’t work, and often that’s how people are taught. It doesn’t work. There’s a feeling out there that, “This isn’t going to work. Why would I spend time and money on something that doesn’t work?” If you are looking for accent reduction services or training, I would ask people, “What is your methodology?” Listen and repeat is not going to cut it for an adult.
Let me ask this question a different way. Let’s say you have a new manager who has been brought in because of how smart they are and how smart their writing is, but they are hard to understand. How can you politely and gracefully say, “Get help. I can’t understand you. This isn’t going to work?”
If you’d like to share these answers with your audience, we have a one-paragraph, let’s call it Talking Template or Talking Points, that we like to give people so that they can have this conversation. The last thing that we want to do is to put the blame on the person. It’s not the person, it’s the language. We don’t want it to be unempowering. We want to empower people so they can have this training.
One thing I would do is I would acknowledge that English is difficult. I would acknowledge that it’s not the person. It’s the language. We can give a few examples. We can also ask that person or mention that, “Hindi is your first language. I can guarantee you that your English is so much better than my Hindi. You happen to be working in English. If we were working in Hindi, that would be a big problem for me. I don’t know or whatever.”
English pronunciation is hard. Here’s a communication training program to not eliminate an accent but rather to acquire the sounds in English that don’t exist in other languages, so you can be as effective as possible in the language that we are working in. Not in our language, not in English, in the language that we are working in. We are all in this together.
Could you leave us with one thing that we could do to get started?
The one thing I would do is to read one email a day out loud, making sure to pronounce the last sound of each word. If you can feel it, they can hear it. If you can feel yourself pronouncing that sound at the end of each word, your listener can hear it. If there are sounds that are difficult to pronounce, I would say seek training. It’s not a huge investment in time, and it will transform your communication and, hopefully, your world as well.
Judy Ravin, thank you so very much for joining us.
Thank you for having me. I hope that it was helpful.
It’s incredibly helpful and useful. How can we find out more? How do we find you?
Thank you so much. This has been useful and helpful. Thank you so much for joining us. I will see you on the next one.