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May 2012 Talking Points Newsletter

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Not being able to understand another person’s accent is frustrating. I don’t know anyone who likes to say, let alone hear, the demoralizing phrase, “What? What did you say?”

An accent, plain and simple, is the pronunciation patterns of any given language. If you speak, you have an accent.

It generally doesn’t give us the warm fuzzies. Yet being part of a global workforce means most of us either say it, or hear it, several times a week. If you’re in the group that has difficulty understanding accents different than your own (since we all have an accent, right?), here’s the single most effective trick to take away a boatload of stress.

It’s pretty simple. Think about why English pronunciation is difficult in the first place. A little bit of background information does wonders for minimizing “accent anxiety”.

Here’s the number one reason why English pronunciation is such an enormous challenge. Many languages are phonetic. In other words, letters are always pronounced the same way. Not so in English. In fact, there isn’t one letter in the English alphabet that can be pronounced in less than two distinct ways. (This includes silent versions, as in the letter ‘p’ of the word ‘receipt’.) This can be pure torture for non-native English speakers. For example, let’s take the letter ‘t’. It’s pronounced “t” (as in time, two, and test); “d” (as in party, sorted, and atom); “sh” (as in fraction, nation, and solution); “ch” (as in nature, future and creature), and the list goes on and on. While English has many pronunciation rules, they aren’t usually taught as part of an English class. While I won’t bore you with the entire canon of rules, I’ll share just two: When the letter ‘t’ is between an ‘r’ and a vowel, as in the word “quarter”, the ‘t’ is pronounced like a ‘d’. When the letter ‘t’ is between two vowels, as in the word ‘metal’, it’s also pronounced like a ‘d’. If English weren’t your first language, how would you ever know all the rules? In fact, if you weren’t a language geek like us, would you know all the rules?

Keeping in mind the challenges of English pronunciation creates more compassionate listening. And when conversations are more compassionate, it’s amazing how much better we hear!

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