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February / March 2013 Talking Points Newsletter

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New research is coming to light on the impact of foreign accents in the U.S. workforce. We now have data showing a direct link between the number of times foreign nationals are asked to repeat themselves and their subsequent level of workforce engagement.

Daniela Bergman, author of, “Accent, Self-Esteem and Community Involvement: A Study of Adult Non-Native English Speakers”, found that people who are frequently asked to repeat themselves commonly describe feeling “embarrassed, annoyed, frustrated, offended, demeaned” and, worst of all, “dumb”. As a result, instead of voicing their expertise, talented professionals chose activities with fewer opportunities for spoken communication. Fortune 500 companies recognize the moral imperative of creating a workforce where every team member is valued. This is the bottom line. For those making the case for diversity, talent, and leadership initiatives, there are sound business reasons as well.

Being the Seeds of Change

Organizations often provide English pronunciation training to ensure high potentials have the communication skills needed for more senior positions. Last year, DuPont Pioneer, the world's leading developer and supplier of advanced plant genetics, decided to offer American accent training to nine lead scientists identified as candidates for future supervisory roles. Each one is an expert in his/her field. Yet these scientists, while fluent in English, didn't have the repertoire of articulation techniques needed to pronounce the sounds in English that do not occur in their first language. (A gap in pronunciation proficiency is common for speakers of any second language, be it English or otherwise.). This created communication barriers that impeded the scientists’ ability to lead teams of innovators and problem solvers, characteristics that Pioneer is known for around the globe.

Last week I meet with Pioneer leadership who have direct reports participating in this year's English pronunciation program. What does a successful talent development program look like? Several of the managers present were last year's program participants!

Debunking the Myth

Perhaps you’ve heard the term, with regard to language learning, the “critical period”. It rather ominously implies that after a certain age it's impossible to acquire the accent, or pronunciation, of a second language. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The “critical age” is the age at which acquiring new pronunciation techniques no longer happens 'automatically'. Until this age, the brain and speech apparatus naturally 'sync'; children produce new speech patterns without explicit instruction. In the world of linguistics, this is called Native Language Neural Commitment. However, acquiring new pronunciation patterns can be learned at any age. The process for adults simply requires re-learning how to use ones lips, teeth, tongue, and jaw in prescribed ways to pronounce specific sounds... sounds that each one of us pronounced in early childhood. If you don't believe it's possible, simply ask the thousands of corporate professionals, like the scientists above, who've mastered English pronunciation techniques and now convey their expertise with clarity, confidence, and ease.

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