A Language Divided by an Ocean

Great Britain and America: “Two Countries Separated by a Common Language”
-Oscar Wilde

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 info@lessaccent.com. To share your own “best practices,” please comment below. Communication is key, and we’re all in this together!

Tearing Down the Bamboo Ceiling

I had a wake-up call last week while attending the Conference Board’s 2012 Corporate Diversity and Inclusion Conference in Chicago.  The two day event included informative sessions led by nearly every contingent of the American workforce.  Except one.  The Asian voice was missing.  I couldn’t figure out why, and I couldn’t let the question go.

As I started looking for answers, I began to think there was probably some connection with the fact that, sadly, Asians make up roughly 20% of the workforce but hold less than 2% of executive jobs at Fortune 500 companies.  And, according to the Alliance for Board Diversity Census, Asians hold just 2.1% of all Board seats in Fortune 500 companies.

This phenomenon, known as The Bamboo Ceiling, is part of a national dialogue being discussed in Fortune Magazine, Crain’s New York, The Atlantic, and numerous other publications.  The consensus seems to be that the numbers above are partly due to a cultural discomfort with, essentially, “tooting one’s own horn.”   While the absence of “voicing” one’s accomplishments may be typical in the Asian workplace, it’s the complete antithesis of what’s expected of rising stars in corporate America.

As consultant Jane Chang of Global Novations put it,

“Asian-Americans don’t grow up promoting ourselves; our parents do that for us. Most of us are uncomfortable with the idea of marketing and pitching our work, let alone building a network or having internal champions, common strategies for career advancement. We’ve been brought up with the ethics of keep your head down, work hard, and you will make money….We are not accustomed to speaking up. Thus, we are seen as lacking leadership skills – we can’t lead if we don’t offer our opinions.”

Jane Hyun, author of the book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians” sums it up nicely by comparing two common idioms.  The first is the Chinese expression, ‘The loudest duck gets shot’; the second is the American saying, ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease.’

Accent challenges compound this problem.  It makes sense.  Being constantly asked to repeat oneself is hardly incentive for demonstrating leadership skills like being outgoing and engaging in healthy conflict.

There are, however, helpful tools for acquiring the skills needed to “speak up” in ways that leadership takes note of and rewards.  One, of course, is participating in an accent neutralization professional development program.  The other is participating in a local Toast Masters (or similar such) organization.  Many corporations have in-house chapters and some are designed specifically for non-native English speakers.  A little bit of constructive coaching goes a very long way.

ARI’s objective is to help non-native English speakers “speak up” with clarity and confidence.  The only way to reap the benefits of an inclusive environment is to tear down the bamboo, and every other, ceiling.  How else can we see those rising stars shine?

Can You Feel That Sound?

“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.

Language as Black or White: A Vote for Descriptivism

“Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
~ Winston Churchill

In the United States, children in English class are taught a slew of rules about their language. Innumerable rules. Our English teachers tell us we’re not allowed to split our infinitives, dangle our prepositions, or ever take our eyes off those inscrutable gerunds, transitives, primary auxiliaries, modal auxiliaries, participles… you name it!

They tell us that “ain’t” ain’t a word and that the plural of “fish” is “fish” while the plural of “ox” is “oxen”. The value begins to break down, however, when grammarians insist that the rules of English are rigid and unchanging. In fact, strict grammarians claim that most of our language rules change little from generation to generation. English teachers of this camp are what linguistics call “prescriptivists,” a term for people who prescribe what the rules of language are and should continue to be.

On the other side of the spectrum is what linguists call “descriptivists,” people who describe the rules of language as they are spoken by the majority of its users. Descriptivists believe that language is a living thing. It evolves as people use it. (Psssst! We’re descriptivists.) Taking a descriptive view of language lets us talk about what people actually say instead of what we think they ought to be saying.

If we listened to prescriptivists, Elvis would have been hanged (or is it “hung”?) for singing “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” We couldn’t say that crews of sunken ships are “sleeping with the fishes.” The millions of native English speakers who say “I had drank some juice” would have to be sent back to 5th grade. We wouldn’t be able to warn someone that we’re about to “pass out”, “give up”, or “fall down”. And worst of all, we would never have been able “to boldly go where no one has gone before”.

While it may seem otherwise, we’re not actually in favor of linguistic anarchy. Heavens no! Rather, what we’d love to see is a slightly less rigid approach to linguistic rules. Unlike the laws of nature, language is man-made. Over the course of millennia, we created our family of languages to solve a universal problem: how to communicate essential information in order to navigate, together, the myriad challenges our environment posed. And still poses. Because our environments (and needs) change… so too must our language, rules and all.

In this regard, we can look at pronunciation rules much like grammar rules. They’re important; in fact, they’re vital. But they’re also fluid. One generation of American English speakers pronounce the ‘t’ in “water”, the next generation (or two) doesn’t. One generation pronounces the ‘al’ in specifically, the next generation (or two) doesn’t. So when do we know which pronunciation patterns are “right” and which are “wrong”? We think it all goes back to the question of why they’re rules in the first place. Is it because that’s the way Shakespeare spoke? (By the way, I reread Hamlet a little while back. It’s a far cry from positive, grammatical role modeling!) Is an accent right because of certain intrinsic, universally agreed upon values? Maybe not. We believe that when the vast majority of people use the same pronunciation patterns, this becomes, defacto, the “correct” accent. Why? Because chances are we’ll all have a better chance of getting our point across… of being understood. That’s why we teach Standard American Pronunciation. It’s not because it’s inherently correct. “Correct” changes over time. It’s because it works!

Echolalia: Everybody’s Doing It!

If you’ve never been to the website “Dr. Goodword” (goodword@lexiteria.com), I strongly recommend taking a look. I stumbled upon Dr. Goodword six years ago when I was looking for ways to help my son prepare for his SAT. Lo and behold, Dr. Goodword was it. Every morning he received a ‘word of the day’ – some uncommon jewel of the English language. The entry came replete with the word’s etymology, pronunciation, and examples of how it’s used today.

I continue to receive my daily dose from Dr. Goodword. It’s wonderful. …One entry (July 30) is too good to keep to myself and I just had to write about it! The word was Echolalia, and it’s profoundly important to anyone who’s trying to learn the American accent, or any speech pattern for that matter.

Echolalia is essential to one of the most critical stages of early language acquisition. Echolalia is the action of repeating the sounds and words spoken by our caregivers and, later on, by our teachers. For those of you who are parents, do you remember the days when your toddlers parroted your every syllable? While some of those early attempts were a little off the mark, in time those first words began to sound just like ours. Dr. Goodword, by the way, seems to feel that the “lalia” part of echolalia is probably onomatopoeic…meaning it sounds like the word it represents. In this case, “lalia” refers to the la-la-la of speech. Echolalia, then, means to repeat that which is spoken.

Interestingly enough, at about the same time Dr. Goodward hit ‘send’ on his echolalia entry, an article by David Robinson ran in New Scientist magazine entitled, Kiki or Bouba: In Search of Language’s Missing Link. Robinson suggests that humankind probably invented our first words using an onomatopoeic process called “sound symbolism”. Robinson proposes that our ancestors invented new words by shaping their mouths to mimic the shape of the objects they were trying to name. To prove this, Robinson cited the work of Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard who ran what’s now called ‘The Kiki/Bouba Experiment’. Here, people were given the two words, ‘kiki’ and ‘bouba’, and were asked to match them to two different objects. One of the objects was spiked, the other curved. Ninety-five percent of the people labeled the spiked object “kiki” and the curved one “bouba”. Interesting that our lips are horizontal (like the spikes of an object) when we say “kiki” and rounded (like a curved object) when we say “bouba”. To further support Robison’s theory, recent studies at the University of Maryland confirmed that the majority of children learn new words better if they are sound symbolic.

This is great news for our accent reduction specialists at ARI. We’ve known for quite some time that mimicry plays a key role in learning new pronunciation patterns. What’s exciting is the treasure trove of new data that continues to support ARI‘s methodology for teaching and learning the American accent. Core to the Ravin Method® is the idea that visual cues are critical when it comes to learning pronunciation. Our brains are hard-wired to mimic not just sounds, but the shapes that our tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw make when producing each sound of any given language. But beyond methodology, I love the way current research keeps going back to the basics: we all learn language the same way. We all can make every sound in the human family of languages. Whatever accent we bring to the table, humankind follows the basic patterns of communication. And isn’t that what language is all about?

A Rose By Any Other Name…

We’re all partial to names. The study of names is called onomastics and, for those of us in the field, it’s a branch of sociolinguistics of great interest, geeky though it may be. Historically speaking, the giving of surnames typically originated from one of four sources: place-names, “descriptive”, trade-names, and names indicating family relationships. Many of these surnames have survived through the centuries and passed the test of time. Place-names which crossed the Atlantic along with their English owners include Lincoln, Brooks, Churchill, and Atwood (“at” means near in Old English). Some common, old-age “descriptive” names are Goodman, Armstrong, White, and Small. Familial names, called patronymics, are found on nearly every corner in most major American cities: Johnson (son of John), Fitspatrick (fitz means “son” in Norman), and MacDonald (mac is “son” in Gaelic).

Trade-names are at the top of my personal ‘surname favorites’ list. This is probably because so many of them are carryovers from now obsolete medieval occupations: Archer, Bowman, Shepherd, and Forrester to name a few. Smith, by the way, is not only the most common surname in America and England, but is also the most common surname in nearly every other European language: Schmidt (German), Ferrier (French), Ferraro (Italian), Herrero (Spanish), Kovacs (Hungarian), and Kusnetzov (Russian).*

Names are important. They’re a central part of our heritage and unique cultural identity. That’s why, as part of ARI‘s corporate diversity and training program, Building Bridges: Tuning Your Ear to Accents, we teach people how to pronounce the names of clients and colleagues for whom English is a second language. Making the effort to say someone’s name correctly speaks volumes (no pun intended)! It says, “I appreciate you, and your culture.”

Here’s some advice on how to accurately pronounce non-English names:

  • Pronounce the letter “a” like “ah” (As in cop)
  • Pronounce the letter “e” like “ay” (As in cape)
  • Pronounce the letter “i” like “eee” (As in keep)
  • Pronounce the letter “o” like “oh” (As in cope)
  • Pronounce the letter “u” like “uw” (As in coop)
  • Pronounce the letter “s” like “s” (not z) (As in so)
  • Pronounce the letters “Zh” like “si” (As in the word illusion)
  • Pronounce the letters “Xi” like “sh” (As in the word shoe)

Now using the key above, try pronouncing the following names. Pay particular attention to the underlined letters, substituting the more authentic pronunciation (as above) for its American accent equivalent: Oscar, Susanna, Alex, Zhang, Xin, Isabella, and Shrinivas. Isn’t that so much easier?

If you have a good “name” anecdote to share…maybe you’ve also driven through Hell, MI or Wahoo, West Virginia, please let us know. We’d love to hear your stories!

*Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue

Accent Training: It’s Not Just What You Say, But How You Say It

It’s easy to see how language can influence perspective. For example, the Chinese word for ‘tragedy’ conveys not just a sense of disaster, but also the idea of opportunity. In other words, good can occur out of bad situations. While many people in the West may agree, this particular view is not implicit by definition.

In this month’s issue of Scientific American, Lera Boroditsky takes the connection between language and thinking one step further. In her article, How Language Shapes Thought, Boroditsky gives numerous examples of how the words we use affect not only what we think, but how we think. Specifically, word choice determines the way we process information. That’s new… and her examples are nothing short of fascinating!

For example, an experiment was conducted whereby people from a variety of language backgrounds were asked to find their way out of an unfamiliar building. Which language speakers did the best? An Aboriginal community in Australia who speak a language called Kuuk Thaayorre. Rather than using spatial terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’, they talk in terms of absolute cardinal directions; “the pen is southwest of the paper” or “Sue is sitting north of John” for example. Boroditzky cites that these speakers’ ability to keep track of spatial locations are “better than scientists thought humans ever could have.”

As it turns out, language use seems to affect nearly every area of cognition, from spatial recognition to memory to color identification to the ability to learn mathematics. We used to believe that thinking shapes language. But cross-linguistic differences clearly demonstrate that language shapes thinking. What does this mean for the adult learner? How we process and use new information depends on what, and how, we speak.

This has a profound impact on ‘best practices’ for ESL speakers and students of English pronunciation. As we know, a simple ‘listen and repeat’ methodology doesn’t work. And while requiring students to look at visual cues is important, this is only one piece of accent training. Explicit, verbal explanations of what to do with the tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw are what completes the picture. Why? Because as socio-linguists tell us: “there may not be a lot of adult human thinking where language does not play a role.”

How Can I Speak with an American Accent? Seeing is Believing

Many of us have heard that when a person, sadly, loses their vision, their hearing gets better. Sometimes their hearing gets extraordinarily better. Recently I came across an article in the New York Times that discussed a similar phenomenon, albeit with a twist. In this case, a woman who lost her hearing used her vision…to bring back her hearing. That’s phenomenal-in the true sense of the word!

There’s abundant research confirming that people can use areas of the brain designed for specific tasks in radically different ways. The woman who became deaf, for example, used lip reading to associate the shapes of the speaker’s mouth with sounds she once clearly heard. Over time, she could ‘hear’ when reading lips. When she saw a person put the tip of their tongue between their teeth, for example, she literally ‘heard’ a “th” sound. Her mind didn’t know the difference. Her doctor explained,

“…she was so adept at lip-reading that it was easy to forget she was deaf. Once, without thinking, I turned away from her as I was speaking. “I can no longer hear you,” she said sharply.

“You mean you can no longer see me,” I said.

“You may call it seeing,” she answered, “but I experience it as hearing.”

Lip-reading, seeing mouth movements, was immediately transformed for this patient into “hearing” the sounds of speech in her mind. Her brain was converting one mode of sensation to another.

This neural phenomenon also relates to the way we learn accurate pronunciation. While people sometimes tell me, “It’s impossible to reduce my accent”, it’s actually more than possible…it happens every day. But I understand their frustration.

For years these individuals, trying hard to learn the American accent, have been told, “Listen and repeat, listen and repeat.” However, it takes a whole lot more than a regiment of “listen and repeat”! It takes associating what things look like (the shape of the mouth) with what things sounds like (vowels and consonants). If you’d like to speak with an American accent, I recommend watching your listener’s mouth very carefully. Notice how they’re using their tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw to make a specific English sound. This is the critical first step; now it’s time to listen and repeat. Try this for one week and see how fast you’ll be on your way to speaking with less frustration and more clarity, ease, and confidence.

Accent Trainers: No Longer Just for Hollywood Professionals

Hollywood? Broadway? Ann Arbor, MI? Where do you find a real Accent trainer? It used to be, only five short years ago, that an accent expert was someone who trained actors and actresses how to speak with a foreign accent for a specific role. Think Tom Hanks in Forest Gump, Kevin Kline in French Kiss, or Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. And of course, who could possibly forget the scene in The Pink Panther where the accent trainer was trying to teach Steve Martin how to say ‘hamburger’ with an American accent?

But these days, when someone uses the terms “accent trainer” or “accent coach,” an altogether different set of expertise comes to mind…at least for those of us in the world of corporate, multicultural diversity training. The terms no longer conjure up visions of a movie star being prepped for his or her role in an upcoming blockbuster. Nowadays, the image is often one of foreign-born business professionals wanting to learn English pronunciation in order to convey–not a set of scripted lines–but technical and professional expertise in the real world of team building and good client service. In conference rooms and training offices around the globe, an accent trainer refers to someone creating inclusiveness in our business environments by eliminating language barriers in our diverse, global workforce.

What do an accent trainer in Hollywood and, say, Ann Arbor, MI have in common? If we scratch below the surface, a whole lot! While those working in the film industry tend to think of this line of work as ‘adding an accent’, people, quite mistakenly, think of corporate accent trainers as ‘taking away’ a person’s accent. Not so. At least not at the Accent Reduction Institute. As I’ve talked about in previous blogs, ‘accent reduction’ is a deceiving misnomer for our line of work. Both kinds of accent trainers mentioned above enable people to pronounce sounds that exist in a target language that don’t occur in his/her first language. A highly proficient accent trainer –a true expert- will teach people how to go from one accent to another.

At the Accent Reduction Institute, we call this code-switching, and it’s an integral part of our curriculum. Why? Because it’s always about giving people a choice of how, where, and when they’d like to express and convey their ideas and expertise. Accent trainers in the film industry and accent trainers for the business world may have two different objectives. But we share one common denominator: we teach people how to speak with clarity, confidence, authenticity, and ease.

American Accent Training Online: No Replacement for Instructors

The Accent Reduction Institute (ARI) is privileged to have a sister company, Menlo Innovations…“Menlo” for short. Menlo is a state-of-the-art software company inspired by the innovative approach of Thomas Edison’s invention factory. As you can imagine, working with the brightest (no pun intended!) software designers has not only helped ARI create accent reduction software for independent study, but also apply the natural learning process to American accent training…online.

Improving your American accent with computer based learning is no easy feat. And yet we’ve found that online learners can make the same rate of improvement as those who participate in onsite training. What’s the key to cracking the code? It doesn’t necessarily lie in using the computer to replace live training. Instead, the solution is to combine live instruction with computer based training, in tandem. Unlike the laws of nature, language evolved to meet a social need: to communicate in order to convey information and negotiate social relationships. Language is interactive; computerized learning tools need to be too.

So how do you get rapid and long-lasting results using computerized tools and modalities? The answer lies in methodology. For accent neutralization training to show hard and fast results, we don’t need to eliminate the live instructor. Au contraire.

For example, at ARI we leverage global, virtual classrooms to simulate what we call a ‘Brady Bunch’ scenario. Several people are logged on concurrently from all over the world…no disconnects between voice and vision, all simulating the classroom experience in real-time. The result? Fantastic pronunciation. Rather than looking at computers as a replacement for expert instructors, we can think of an American pronunciation program online as a kind of ‘force multiplier’. When students share virtual white-boards, screen shares and, more fundamentally, receive feedback from their instructor, we use computers as helpers rather than replacers.

For those who fear that computers need replace the teacher…rest easy. We have metrics to prove otherwise.