“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Accent reduction, also known as accent modification and accent neutralization, is the process of learning how to pronounce the sounds of any given language. In the United States, these terms refer almost exclusively to the accent patterns of Standard American English. “Accent reduction”, “accent modification” and “accent neutralization” are used interchangeably by both instructors and learners. At Accents International, we also use the term “accent acquisition”. We teach non-native English speakers how to acquire the sounds in English needed for ease and efficacy of oral communication.
Why Accent Modification is often neglected: A few urban myths
• Pronunciation isn’t necessary for effective communication. False. That’s like saying grammar and vocabulary are irrelevant. The sound of a word imparts its meaning. If one person says ‘depend’ and the other hears ‘defend’, the message sent doesn’t match the message received. This is a perfect definition of a misunderstanding.
• It’s impossible for adults to master a new accent. False. It’s not that adults can’t learn a new accent, it’s that adults learn differently than children. When adults receive step-by-step instruction, and in-the-moment feedback, they consistently acquire each and every sound of the accent in question. Just like children, however, consistent use (aka, practice) is key.
• If I have an accent, I need accent modification. False. Everyone has an accent. Another word for accent is ‘pronunciation’. Along with grammar and vocabulary, pronunciation is the third leg of the communication stool. Without any one of these three components, communication breaks down. The question is not whether someone has an accent, it’s whether the accent deviates from the standard to such a degree that a disconnect occurs between the speaker and listener. Should the latter be the case, accent modification is a tried and true solution.
The shared goal of accent reduction, accent modification, and accent neutralization is not that we all sound the same. It’s that we’re all understood.
Great Britain and America: “Two Countries Separated by a Common Language”
Last month I spoke at the 2012 NATO eLearning Conference where delegates from member nations discussed ‘best practices’ for online learning. My presentation, “Delivering Training to Multinational Audiences” sparked an important question, germane to both online and onsite training: “What do you do when the same word has different meanings depending on what side of the Atlantic you’re on?” For example, the word “boot” in British English describes what Americans would call the trunk of a car, the word “hire” means “to rent” in British English and “to employ” in American English, and while “to luck out” is a wonderful thing in America (where it means to have great luck) it’s an awful thing in Britain (where it means to run out of luck.) To get an appreciation for just how many words and phrases fall into this category (thousands upon thousands), whole books and anthologies have been written on the topic (see Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English by Davies Christopher and Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions: Making Sense of Transatlantic English, by Orin Hargraves).
This challenge isn’t limited to just British-to-American discourse or, for that matter, South African-to-American, Irish-to-American, Australian-to-American and, believe it or not, American-to-American communication. Hence, per the latter, the publication of D.A.R.E –the Dictionary of American Regional English, to help those of us living and working in the U.S. who might otherwise be lost in translation. DARE is a multi-volume reference work that documents words, phrases, and pronunciations that vary from one place to another across the United States. It even includes a map of “regionalisms.”
Which leads us back to the original question…With so many people speaking correct, yet significantly different, English, how can we develop courseware so that learning is as easy and effective as possible? We like to recommend using what ARI has coined, “The Hover Solution.” It works like this… Comb through the material and cross reference each word, and especially all idiomatic phrases, to see if there are dialectical or regional differences. When you find them, indicate these words/phrases by either bolding or underlining them. Then allow the learner to hover over the marked word with his/her cursor until the “translation” appears on the screen. It’s an easy fix to a problem that causes communication disconnects day in and day out, all around the globe.
To learn more about creating instructional material for a diverse workforce, please contact us at email@example.com. To share your own “best practices,” please comment below. Communication is key, and we’re all in this together!
For those of us who work closely with Talent Managers and Directors of Learning and Development, we need little convincing of the business case for communication training. It makes perfect sense that effective communication is directly proportional to innovation and “mind-share”. In other words, the better we communicate the greater the productivity. And innovation, mind-share, and productivity are the signatures, let’s even call them trademarks, of a free market economy.
While not exclusive to the U.S., Americans can take pride in the “free movement of labor” aspect of its workforce. People are free to move up the ladder not because of social class or familial ties, but because of the unique skill set they bring to an organization and its teams. Talent Managers, Diversity Officers, HR specialists, and Learning and Development folks can especially take pride in their role of ensuring the multicultural talent of our diverse workforce has a level playing field.
Why? Because they’re the ones that promote effective communication programs. These give key talent opportunities to share their expertise with ease and confidence, to get buy-in to new ideas, and to lead others in more effective directions. When this happens, key talent can position and reposition themselves where they, and their organizations, can best maximize their contributions. And even better, what happens when our contributions are noted and valued? We move away from thinking about what’s best for me toward thinking about what’s best for the organization. Everybody wins.
This blog post isn’t an attempt to validate the views of economist Adam Smith or his famous, “The Wealth of Nations”. It’s to recognize the hard, and integral, work that people in charge of communication training bring to their organizations. With specific regard to accent modification, they know that behind every, “What? What did you say?” is an unspoken message conveyed between the listener and his/her speaker. Linguists call this ‘the meta-message’. The meta-message has to do with more than just the meaning of words. It has to do with an implicit, though often unintended, statement about the relationship between the two people speaking. Some people think of this as ‘the message behind the message’. With the example, “What? What did you say?”, the meta-message is clear: You, Mr./Ms. speaker, we have a problem because I can’t understand you.
Accent modification is a relatively new kind of professional development training. At the start of the last decade, there were only a handful of us who left academia to bring it to the private sector. During the early years, the corporate leadership who brought us in were downright brave. They had to defend their budget expenditures on a training program that hadn’t yet amassed the number of participants needed to validate, in any meaningful way, an ROI. (We believe the number needs to be above 1,000 participants who’ve either advanced their careers or had a noticeable impact on their organizations.) It was risky, but corporate leadership took a chance on accent modification; they took a chance on us.
I’d like to make a simple statement to the leadership at corporations, universities, and government agencies who betted on us. I hope both the message and the meta-message are one in the same:
“I just don’t get it. I’ve been here for 23 years and I still have a heavy accent. How come?” I heard this question last week when I was sitting next to a businessman on a flight. He was super smart, savvy, and an “in on the know” professional. His question didn’t surprise me. Probably because I’ve been asked it somewhere north of 200 times.
So why is it that mastering the American accent seems to be so agonizingly difficult? (It’s not… but we’ll get to that later.) Part of the reason has to do with how we learn language in the first place. Let’s begin at the beginning: infancy.
Newborns and babies have a pressing and exceptionally important task at hand. They need to figure out the difference between sounds, and the sounds of their “language”. They need to differentiate between the sound “s” makes in the word “measure”, and the sound a car motor makes. They’re similar, but certainly not the same. In other words, the first step to language learning is sound discrimination. Now over time, babies and toddlers master this critical step and their powerful little brains start weeding out random sounds from those spoken by their caregivers. This process is called NLNC, Native Language Neural Commitment.
The end result is that by the time we all reach adulthood, it’s painfully difficult to hear the fine nuances between certain foreign language sounds that don’t exist in our own language. See if you can hear the difference in pronunciation between the Zulu words “to whitewash” and “to fix”.
How about between the German words “to offer” and “to pray”?
Or between the words for “palace” and “dirt” in Gujarati? I’ve tried and tried, but I just can’t hear the difference.
Which takes us back to why, without instruction, it can be extraordinarily challenging to learn English pronunciation. Some adult learners simply may not have the context to hear the difference between sounds that are (frustratingly) similar. Kind-of like how the above words are for the American ear. And if you can’t “hear” a sound, it’s awfully difficult to produce it.
That’s one of the reasons why, for adult foreign language learners, pronunciation can be an extraordinary challenge. Yet our accent coaches have worked with upwards of 1,000 adult learners and not one person has ever failed to learn how to make each and every English vowel and consonant. Part of the trick is showing people how to “feel” sounds. While this may seem crazy, it means helping people become aware of how it feels when they accurately place their tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw when pronouncing new sounds. There are other tricks of the trade too. If you’re interested, ask us for more. We’ll be happy to pass them along.
The Accent Reduction Institute’s mission statement is a little deceiving. It states, Eliminating Language Barriers While Helping People Maintain Their Unique Cultural Identity. While this certainly isn’t untrue, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Our “M.O.” is actually bigger than it may appear: bring joy to our clients, joy to their organizations, joy to their clients, and joy to our faculty and curriculum writers. That’s our goal. Our objective. Our end all, be all. To borrow from the French…creating joy is our raison d’etre.
Why all the fuss about something as touchy-feely as “joy”? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to expect an American accent training company‘s objective to be more along the lines of…helping people be more productive? Or giving people the tools they need to better communicate their professional expertise to colleagues and clients? Or enabling our international workforce to raise the bottom line of their companies? Of course! But these objectives are the logical consequences of what we do (accent modification), not why we do it.
Our mission statement speaks to our more fundamental goal of helping people fully participate in their own lives. Most of our program participants sought training because they were frustrated by the constant question, “What? What did you say? Can you repeat that? I don’t understand what you’re saying.” By the time they found us, they’d already shut down a part of themselves.
If you had two proposals in front of you, one from a company whose employees held back from full participation and one whose employees were eager to jump in and joyously innovate, problem solve, and assist…which company would you choose? Perhaps the companies that hire us may even say that Joy is their ultimate ROI as well…after their personnel complete pronunciation training these companies get, and retain, customers who appreciate working with them.
I recently asked our Director of Curriculum and Training, Barb Niemann, about the highlight of her year. Barb’s answer? “Our participants can now speak English without a language barrier. They’re happy. Their managers are happy. Their clients are happy. I’m thrilled.”
I heard a delightful interview on NPR last week with Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herse, founders of the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL). Deck and Herse explained that typos are often caused by the discrepancies between the way English words are spelled and the way they’re pronounced. Any student of American accent training can surely sympathize, if not from the spelling side of the equation, than from the pronunciation side.
Members of the TEAL team recognize that, unfortunately, a solid 14% of English words are not spelled phonetically. Yikes! How can a student of English pronunciation training possibly contend with this? Thankfully, the situation is less dire than it may seem.
Part of the Accent Reduction Institute’s methodology is to address this situation head on. Contrary to what we may think, non-phonetic spelling patterns often correspond to “mini” pronunciation rules. And there are many! Once we identify these rules, pronunciation becomes a far less daunting task.
For example, let’s take the letter ‘t’. It can be pronounced in the following ways: “t” (as in time, two, and test); “d” (as in party, sorted, and Carter); “sh” (as in fraction, nation, and solution); “ch” (as in nature, future and fracture), and the list goes on. It’s fascinating (if you’re an English aficionado like I am) to recognize that these different pronunciations consistently conform to hard-and-fast spelling rules. While I won’t bore you with the entire canon of English spelling-pronunciation law, I’ll share just one: When the letter ‘t’ is between an ‘r’ and a vowel, as in the word “mortar”, the ‘t’ is pronounced like a ‘d’. This is just one of many examples where seemingly non-phonetic spelling patterns are actually key pronunciation rules. With a little instruction, pronunciation patterns become easy as pie.
The process of learning pronunciation rules reminds me of the last time I bought a car. When I finally decided on a Ford Escape, suddenly parking lots and highways were full of them…it appeared they were everywhere! The same goes for pronunciation. Once you realize that the letter ‘t’ between two vowels is pronounced like a ‘d’ (as in the word “water”) you’ll notice this mini-rule popping up in every other sentence. Soon you’ll find yourself saying “liter” like “leader” and “atom” like “Adam”. English pronunciation doesn’t need to be as daunting as it first appears. To quote Shakespeare, one of our great English masters, “There really is a method to the madness!”
Many of us have spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to learn a second language. Maybe it was to fulfill a language requirement, maybe it was in preparation for a relocation, maybe it was simply to make a vacation that much more fun. Somewhere on the path to fluency I would wager that most of us stopped and wondered, “Is it really worth it? This takes so much time. And it’s hard. Maybe I can just get by with a dictionary.”
The US Department of Defense seems to think it’s very worth it. In fact, sizable amounts of training budgets are now allocated to teaching our servicemen and women deploying to Afghanistan the languages of the region: Dari and Pashto. Of course there are strategic advantages to speaking the language of the populace. Imagine all the unpleasant scenarios that can be avoided by being conversant with local residents. But there are other reasons as well. Key military figures, from General Petraeus to General Mattis, see this as a key piece of counterinsurgency strategy, a necessary requisite for creating a collaborative relationship with the Afghan people.
It’s said that learning to speak another person’s language is the single most important part of creating a personal connection. In essence, speaking someone’s language is a relationship builder. Is that really true?
In order to answer this, I turned to idioms. Idiomatic phrases tend to give that added ‘umph’ to literal meanings. They get at the underlying feeling of what’s being said. With that in mind, look
at the following examples and determine which is the more powerful phrase, (A) or (B):
- We’re on the same wavelength.
- We speak the same language.
- We see eye to eye.
- We speak the same language.
- We’re on the same side of the fence.
- We speak the same language.
- We’re cut from the same cloth.
- We speak the same language.
My suggestion to language learners, myself included, is to stick with it. For those of us who work in private industry, there’s nothing better than clear communication with individuals on every rung of the corporate ladder. Because while it’s good to be on the same page, it’s better to speak the same language!
In the world of corporate training, accent modification is a new industry. It started showing up on the Human Resources radar about ten years ago. Even now, I’m frequently asked, “Accent modification? What is that?” So it’s not surprising there is substantial curiosity with regard to process… how accent modification actually works.
The old method, aka the Mary Poppins method, goes something like this: listen, repeat; listen, repeat; listen, repeat. I can hardly imagine anything more boring. Perhaps more importantly, this method doesn’t work. We now know, mostly from the fields of cognitive neurology and neuro-linguistics, that adult pronunciation learners acquire new skills when engaged in an interactive process that includes three modalities:
Integrating these three components of skill acquisition is the fastest way to learn new speech patterns, and to be able to use them on a “second nature” basis.
Have you ever noticed that when we learn a new language, we always understand more of what is being said than we ourselves are able to say? Auditory discrimination comes before verbal proficiency. So step one in accent modification is helping people discriminate between sounds in English and sounds in their native language. The process doesn’t stop there, which is why “listen and repeat” won’t work.
For adults, in order to learn a new speech pattern, we need to be taught exactly where to place our tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw. Talking about a technique doesn’t do the trick; seeing the placement and feeling the position of our speech apparatus are non-negotiable components of accent modification methodology. Learning a language is an experiential process; by integrating the three processes above, we move from “How does it work?” to “Aha! This works!”
Twenty-four years ago, as an American student participating in a Junior Year Abroad program in Paris, I was inundated with the phrase, “Quoi? Qu’est-ce que tu as dis?” That’s French for, “What? What did you say?” It was then and there that I understood, first-hand, the relationship between mastery of a language’s pronunciation patterns and oral proficiency in that language: they’re directly proportional.
Prior to landing at Charles de Gaulle airport, I’d been under the impression that my French was quite good – certainly more than passable. After all, I was a straight “A” French major and studying with a group of foreign language students from Middlebury College, one of the finest language schools in the country. Yet, once in Paris, it was the rare person who didn’t ask that I repeat myself or, worse, give me a blank stare. What seemed to be the problem? It was my accent. Without having had formal training in articulation techniques / pronunciation training, my French simply wasn’t going to be easily understood.
At the heart of the matter, it’s really quite irrelevant whether we’re talking about French, English, or any other spoken language. True fluency requires competency in several core areas, including:
And regardless of whether we call accent reduction training by any other name – accent modification, accent neutralization, or American accent training – at its foundation is a shared objective: to help non-native English speakers learn to pronounce English sounds and speech patterns that may not exist in their first language. In fact, the above industry buzz-words are somewhat misnomers. When being meticulously technical, I tend to think of this kind of training as “accent acquisition”, since learners are taught how to acquire a completely new pronunciation system.
Regardless of the merits and weaknesses of a particular nomenclature, the inability to convey one’s thoughts, feelings, and even professional expertise due to a difficult to understand speech pattern is terribly frustrating. It hurts our confidence and others miss out on important information or contributions. Having been on the ‘other side of the street’ – the Champs Elysees to be specific – my goal is to eliminate language barriers while, at the same time, helping people maintain their unique cultural identity. In my next blog, I’m going to speak about how to do just that.