“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”
– hit song by The Animals
We’ve long known that chimpanzees communicate with ‘words’ –specific sounds to signify specific objects. What’s new, however, is the discovery that chimps have accents that depend on where they live and with whom they socialize. Published earlier this month in the journal Current Biology, the article “Chimps Learn New Language When They Change Locale” describes how a group of nine chimps literally changed their tune when they moved from a Dutch zoo to a zoo in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Prior to the move, the Dutch chimps used a high-pitched series of grunts to signify an apple, one of the chimps’ favorite foods. After joining the Scottish chimps, the newcomers lowered their pitch to match that of their new friends. “It’s the first time we’ve seen another primate species — not humans — change the structure of the call that they give for a specific object by socially learning it,” explained University of York psychologist Katie Slocombe. In essence, “the Dutch visitors changed their call for apples to conform to the pitch pattern used by their Scottish hosts.”
Pitch is a key component of any accent, be it a chimpanzee accent or a human one. In English, there are several instances where changing the pitch of a word altogether changes its meaning. For example, compare the pitch pattern of ‘a greenhouse’ with that of ‘a green house.’ A ‘greenhouse’ has an up-down pitch pattern. A ‘green house’ has an even pitch pattern. (Meaning, the pitch is the same for both ‘green’ and ‘house.’)
Acquiring new pronunciation patterns, whether it occurs naturally or a through an accent modification program, allows us to be easily understood. This may arguably be every person’s, and possibly every chimpanzee’s, greatest desire.
It’s been almost seven years since I received our first inquiry from the American Association of Medical Transcriptionists (AAMT). These are the folks who listen to dictations by physicians and nurses (who, I came to learn, are fondly referred to as ‘dictators’). They then transcribe the audio dictations to written format.
The AAMT had a problem and they wanted to know if the Accent Reduction Institute could help. With nearly 35% of our U.S. practicing physicians being non-native English speakers, understanding some of the dictations could be quite a challenge. A medical transcriptionist (MT) could hit ‘rewind’ repeatedly, but without an actual process for deciphering unfamiliar speech patterns, they’d be stuck. The MT’s compared it to the well known analogy of rocking in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but you don’t get anywhere.
Thus, accent comprehension was born.
Last week I provided our process for understanding accented speech to an organization whose workforce comes from all around the globe. Afterwards, one of the attendees sent me the following note.
My name is Kathleen and my father was a second generation American of Polish descent, his parents only spoke Polish and he only went up to the 6th grade. He could not pronounce the “th” in Kathleen – he always called me Katleen. Now I understand why. It is worth it just to have that understanding. I have to confess that when people would use the term “dumb Polak” I thought they were referring to my father because he did not know how to pronounce my name.
I gasped when I read this. Very painful. The prejudicial slur is intolerable; the misunderstanding it created is heartbreaking. BTW, my grandmother is also of Polish descent, and the immigrant experience in America is both a personal and professional one for me. Perhaps this is one reason why helping people find their voice has been my lifelong passion.
When the AAMT made that first call nearly seven years ago, I’m not sure they meant to have such a far reaching impact on people’s personal lives. To this day, I’m grateful for that call.
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.
NPR recently published a fascinating article entitled Unfamiliar Accents Turn Off Humans And Songbirds. If you were to read this title, wouldn’t you assume that meant unfamiliar accents are a ‘turn off’ to people and birds? That’s what I assumed…and it led me to read further.
As we know, a ‘turn-off’ is an idiomatic expression that means to repulse or repel. This article, however, was certainly not talking about a supposedly abhorrent nature of unfamiliar accents. For as we know, depending on our experiences and perspectives, accents can either be a ‘turn-off’ or a ‘turn-on’. Think of a French accent and all kinds of ooh-la-la come to mind!
The article was highlighting a phenomenon that neurologists from Scotland recently discovered when examining brain activity in people exposed to unfamiliar accents. Their findings? Activity in the temporal region of the brain (the region that process voice discrimination) ‘turns off’, or at least greatly diminishes. But does this suggest that accents are a turn-off? Hardly! It simply notes that sounds which don’t occur in one’s native language are processed as an ‘accent’ and not given as much relevance.
In the world of cognitive linguistics, this phenomenon is known as NLNC (Native Language Neural Commitment). It means that as we identify the speech patterns of our native language, our brains create neural pathways that recognize, respond, and commit to the pronunciation patterns of our first language. Over time, other speech sounds are seen as “accented” speech.
Interestingly, researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Duke University have discovered that songbirds, like people, have regional ‘accents’ and tend to respond to songs in a familiar accent. Swamp sparrows from Pennsylvania sound markedly different than swamp sparrows from New York. Does this mean that one bird’s accent is ‘right’ and the other is ‘wrong’? Of course not!
As far as people and our accents are concerned, heavy accents that create language barriers may prevent effective communication. But accents that don’t impede communication are an important part of our identity. If, as seems to be the case, birds of a feather sing together….it might do us some good to remember we need sopranos, tenors and everything in between to create perfect harmony.
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?
Absolutely. For years, professional development training has focused almost exclusively on how foreign nationals can improve their communication skills when speaking with their American counterparts. But does focusing on only one side of the communication street make sense? In our global workforce, wouldn’t it be better to create ways in which each of us can create more effective communication?
I believe so. That was my impetus for creating a patent-pending methodology and curriculum, code-named Building Bridges, for helping English speakers understand unfamiliar accents. Building Bridges also provides strategies to convey one’s message in ways that are more easily understood. Let’s face it: English isn’t exactly a logical language. We can look at the following example to see just how confusing English can be. In conversation, it’s common to start a sentence with the word, “who”. For example, “Who you need to talk to is someone in HR.” What? What did you say? If I were a non-native English speaker, that’s exactly how I’d reply! It doesn’t make sense to start a statement with a question word. If I’d had heard that, it would’ve put me directly into ‘I need to provide information mode’ rather than the exact opposite, ‘I’m being given information mode’.
The fact is, I don’t know anyone who likes to hear, or say, “Excuse me? Can you repeat that?” Whether you’re on the speaking, or listening, side of the equation, it’s not the best practice for relationship building. Building Bridges is being used in aviation, the Department of Defense, and in the corporate, commercial sector. It was recently featured in an AOL “Daily Finance” report. Feel free to check it out.
If you’ve had an experience you’d like to share, please reply. I’d love to hear it!