To Be Or Not To Bee, That Is The Question

Just a couple of weeks ago ABC News came out with an updated list, state-by-state, of America’s most misspelled words. Our faculty had great fun clicking on each other’s respective home state and seeing how our kinfolk ranked. It was pretty comical. Even more so was the ensuing banter over which words we were surprised to find misspelled, and which misspelled words seemed perfectly natural.

It didn’t take us long to bring the conversation back to a more serious note. After all, spelling and pronunciation are inextricably linked and, when English isn’t someone’s first language, both can be painfully difficult. Our clients could be the first to describe the seemingly illogical nature of English spelling and, by default, pronunciation.

Why are spelling and pronunciation so doggone difficult? Allow me to be direct: It’s not you, nor your colleagues, nor anyone who speaks English, be it their mother tongue or as a second language. Plain and simple, it’s the language.

Many languages are phonetic, where each letter is pronounced in only one way. English is not. One letter can be pronounced in a truly inordinate number of ways. In fact, there isn’t a letter in the English alphabet that can be pronounced in less than two distinct ways. (This includes silent versions. Think ‘p’ in the word ‘receipt’, ‘b’ in the word ‘numb’, and ‘l’ in the word ‘salmon’.) Now let’s narrow it down from the entire alphabet to just vowels. Take the letter ‘o’. There’s ‘o’ as in ‘cot’, ‘coffee’, ‘cool’, ‘cook’, ‘come’, ‘co-op’, ‘cope’, ‘cow’, ‘coil’, and on and on and on. Is it any wonder why folks in Colorado have difficulty spelling the word ‘tomorrow’? Heck, both the words ‘Colorado’ and ‘tomorrow’ are spelled with an ‘o’ that’s pronounced in three different ways.

As we can see, relying on pronunciation as a guide for correct spelling, and spelling for effective pronunciation, is arguably not the best strategy. For pronunciation, when it’s the case of a specific word or two, try howtopronounce.com. For spelling, good ol’ Webster’s Dictionary may still be the best game in town.

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!

Why Learning a New Accent Isn’t Always Lemon Squeesy*!

We’re halfway into the 2012 Summer Olympics and the U.S. athletes have certainly done America proud. Take Michael Phelps, honoring the U.S. with his 18th gold medal, Gabby Douglas standing proud and bemedaled on the award stand, and 17-year-old boxer Claressa Shields beaming with golden grace.

But let’s have a look at one skill the U.S. athletes have yet to master…the Cockney accent. In an attempt to pay homage to their London hosts, several Olympians displayed their affection with a resolute, yet miserably hopeless, attempt to adopt their hosts’ native accent. If you want to laugh along with Team USA, check out their admirable, albeit unsuccessful, attempts. As much as I’m rooting for soccer player Heather O’Reilly, a gold in Cockney Accent certainly isn’t in the making.

In the athlete’s defense, the phrases chosen for the task are hardly “textbook”. They’re a wonderful slice of Cockney idioms, phrases that typically rhyme with the word the person wants to say; for example, ‘telephone’ becomes the phrase ‘dog and bone.’  The athletes, then, have to contend with a double whammy: getting their tongues around Cockney vowels and consonants, and their heads around the meaning of the phrases. The following idiom, and one that stumped Olympian after Olympian, makes the case: “Would you like some John Cleese with your uncle Fred, or just a little bit of talk and mutter?” actually means, “Would you like some cheese with your bread or just a bit of butter?”

Like accent learners of any language, the 2012 Olympians’ attempts demonstrate the difficulty of trying to acquire a new accent simply by using a “repeat after me” methodology. It doesn’t work, and especially not for adult learners. Given the neural wiring of our brains, adults need specific instructions. We need to be taught where to place our tongue, teeth, jaw, and lips to pronounce new sounds with which we may not be familiar. We need to be shown what it looks like and feels like…in effect, to “see” and “feel” a sound. Can it be done? Absolutely!

There are thousands of non-native English speakers who have successfully completed American accent training…and each one of them deserves a medal!

*More examples of Cockney slang.

Imitating an accent: Can it be done without mockery?

You know that feeling you get when you hear someone trying to imitate another person’s accent? Usually you’re so embarrassed for the person you just want to hide under the nearest table. Or, worse, the person’s attempts at mockery are so offensive you cringe with repugnance. It’s a rare individual who can take on another’s accent and make you feel like you’re speaking with one of your friends and colleagues. And yet it can be done. If you’ve ever seen Tony Award winning playwright and actress Sarah Jones, you know what I mean.

Sarah Jones has a gift. While playing the character of Ms. Ling (from China), Sunita (from India), or Habiba (from Jordan), all with near-native pronunciation, Jones tackles some of the most difficult issues of the day – homelessness, immigration, business competition — without stereotyping or marginalizing anyone. In fact, listening to her characters makes you think you’re watching a little piece of yourself. Not an easy task.

How does she do it? When asked this question at a recent symposium sponsored by the Business and Finance Committee at the University of Michigan called, ‘Many Voices‘, Ms. Jones answered, “People who play characters… have to… transcend their ‘package’… .You have to be those other people… You have to connect to the humanity of the character.”

That’s the key! By expressing humanity’s shared desire to “have all of what you bring to the world be valued”, Jones conveys her message in a whole gamut of accents but absent any mockery. You don’t get that awful feeling like you can’t believe what you’re hearing and need to find the nearest exit ASAP.

When Jones was asked about her techniques to ‘get into persona’, my ears pricked up immediately. One of them is identical to an approach we use at the Accent Reduction Institute. Jones thinks of a person she respects and admires. She then tries to imitate the way that person conveys empathy and understanding. For her, it’s Lilly Thomas or Meryl Streep. We suggest a similar method in our English pronunciation training programs.

We encourage participants to think of a person whose pronunciation, articulation, and diction they admire. Envisioning being understood easily and with authenticity helps people learn English pronunciation, or acquire new speech patterns in general. If you were to suggest a few role-models for learners of English pronunciation, who would they be? Julia Roberts? President Obama?

Talent Gap. Who, Us?

That’s right. We have a talent gap in this country, and many people don’t even realize it. The definition of a talent gap, also known as a skills gap, is where there are more jobs than qualified people to fill them. It may not be obvious to everyone, but the United States talent gap is real, big, and getting bigger by the moment.

Where are the jobs? If I travel around the state (in my case, Michigan), I don’t see a whole lot of “Hiring” signs. That’s because the talent gap isn’t in manufacturing or services. It’s in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

According to a recent Manpower survey, only 73% of senior human resource managers said they felt their company had the talent it needed to implement its business strategy. And oh by the way, the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics say that between 2006-2016, the STEM fields represent the industries that are growing the fastest. Yikes!

One of the biggest reasons for the disconnect between available jobs and qualified workers is that, for the first time in history, it’s not looking likely the number of workers entering the U.S. labor force will replace the skills soon to be leaving. Baby boomers, who are en route to retirement, account for more than 50% of our current workforce and 25% of workers with STEM degrees. That leaves a lot of soon to be empty seats in fields that are key to company growth and global competition. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security recognizes this as such a serious problem, they’ve created a complete list of DHS, STEM designated degree programs (PDF, 110k).

But not to worry! There’s no need for alarm bells. The seats will in fact be filled by qualified, hard working, well-educated and talented individuals. The difference, however, between tomorrow’s company landscape and yesteryears’, is that many of our co-workers will be foreign born… and non-native English speakers. Today, international PhD students make up 43% of fellow PhD’s in math, 46% in computer sciences, and 51% in engineering. Many of these students would like to stay and, like generations of immigrants before them, contribute to the economic growth and rich cultural fabric of the U.S. workforce.

This leaves a potential challenge for corporate leadership. With people for whom English is a second language, there’s a risk of ineffective communication and alienation, a recipe for “talent disengagement”. Thankfully, this is avoidable. Here are a few techniques everyone can put into practice that make a huge difference in improving collaboration, camaraderie, and productivity:

  • When a co-worker apologizes to you for their “bad English”, tell them: “Your English isn’t bad. You should hear my Chinese, Thai, Spanish, Hindi, fill in the blank!”
  • Learn how to say “thank you” in each of the languages your co-workers speak, and say it!
  • Be patient. English pronunciation isn’t intuitive. Instead of saying, “What? What did you say?” Try, “Could you repeat that for me. I didn’t understand, and I’d like to.”

These short and sweet techniques go a long way in extending the proverbial handshake. It will make the new business climate a warmer one!

Metaphors: Better than Facts

“Metaphors are much more tenacious than facts.”
~ Paul de Man

Believe it or not, despite our varying degrees of poetic ability, we all try our hand with the poet’s most time honored literary device, metaphor. Metaphor is a technique used to transfer the qualities of one word to another. It seems complicated, but really it’s not. For example, does the following sound familiar? “She has a heart of gold.” Or, “her eyes were shining stars.” Of course, the woman’s heart isn’t really made of gold; nor are her eyes actual celestial bodies. But you get the idea that she’s a kind person with bright and alluring eyes. “Eyes” are, in fact, one of our most favorite ‘metaphorical’ words. Here are a few global perspectives (get the pun?):

“When soldiers have been baptized in the fire of a battle-field, they have all one rank in my eyes.” Leopold Bonaparte (French)

“The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.” Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (German)

“When I look into the future, it’s so bright it burns my eyes.” Oprah Winfrey (English)

A surprising amount of the English language is rooted in metaphorical associations. Anger is linked to fire, as in “inflammatory remarks” or “consumed by rage.” Love is linked to war, as in “love is a battlefield” or “she fled from his advances“. Another common contrast is “up” versus “down,” where “up” is “good” and “down” is “bad.” It’s usually good when we “grow up”, “stand up”, “rise up”, “team up”, “show up”, and “1-up”, but not so good when we “stand down”, “throw down”, “show down”, “burn down”, or “fall down”. We throw our hands in the air when profits “go up”, but our faces drop when profits “go down”.

One way English speakers can help smooth out communication in multicultural contexts is by using literal ways of talking rather than metaphorical, or non-literal, ways. For non native English speakers, phrasal verbs are often the most difficult to understand. A phrasal verb is when we take a word like “make” and add an adjective like “up”. This creates the phrase “to make up”. The reason verb phrases are confusing is because they often have more than one meaning. In this case, “to make up” can mean to fabricate, to re-do, or to reconcile. How about the phrase “to make out”? Can you think of at least three meanings?

Mastering a second language can be a challenge. There’s a lot that goes into it: grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, and pronunciation. Here’s a tip English speakers can use to make the process easier for others: use as much direct, literal speech as possible. This can take some mindfulness and practice. Americans, including me, love indirect speech. In fact, we use non-literal phrases around the clock, night and day, and 24/7! But if we can get into the habit of using words like “arrive” instead of “show up”, and “give” instead of “hand out”, it’s more likely our message will be understood with ease and confidence. How do we know it’s time to use more poetic license? Listen for when the other person starts using idiomatic expressions and non-literal phrases. When you recognize them… follow their lead!

Hey Jack! Happy Halloween!

Who’s Jack, as in Jack O’Lantern? That’s right. My question wasn’t, “What’s a Jack-o’-lantern”? But instead, who’s this Jack guy and how did he get involved with Halloween?

Let’s begin by taking a look at the name, Jack. In Medieval Europe, Jack was a slang term for “everyone”. It came from an older form of phrase “everichon” which was often split into “every chone. The expression then changed to “every John” (note the similarity in pronunciation between chone and John). Over time, the next iteration became “every Jack”. Finally, an idiom for “everyone” became “every man Jack of them.” Does the following line sound familiar?

“But I am responsible for the ship’s safety and the life of every man Jack aboard of her.”

It’s straight out of Treasure Island, by Robert Luis Stevenson.

Great. Now we know where the name “Jack” of the Jack-o-lantern came from, but what does it have to do with glowing pumpkins on Halloween? According to tradition, the Irish once carved out root vegetables, placed a lit candle inside, and then diligently put them in their windows the evening before All Saints Day. The eve was known as All Hallow Even. Today we refer to the night before All Saints Day as Halloween. It was believed that lit gourds warded off the souls of the dead, whom the Irish believed carried about on the eve of this holy day.

Let’s pause just for a moment and go back in time to another period: Ancient Rome. Back in the day, the mysterious gas that faintly burns over marshy swampland was then called, ignis fatuus. The direct translation is, “crazy fire”. Now fast forward to Medieval Europe…this “crazy fire” was believed to be aglow with sprites, ghosts, goblins, and wandering souls of the dead. The perfect place, of course, to carry about on All Hallow Evening! The man with the lantern, the Jack-o’-Lantern, came to exemplify a man who carried a lantern across the fiery swamps that eerily glowed nearby.

When the Irish immigrated to America, the custom changed from lit gourds to lit pumpkins. Lighting pumpkins on Halloween is now a revered holiday in the United States, shared by people of all walks of life and cultures. It’s a time for children to dress up in scary or funny costumes, and go door-to-door for sweets and neighborly greetings. It’s a custom that’s lost its earlier supernatural connotations and, instead, was replaced with neighborly cheer and goodwill.

I find it fascinating the way history links people’s customs from the far and wide regions of the world. In this case, from Rome to Ireland to the United States. I also find it fascinating the way pronunciation links peoples and customs the world over. From All Hallows Even to Halloween. And while there may not really be a Jack with a lantern who whisks over swampy waters aglow with sprites and other phantoms, I’d still like to like to use the name Jack for a Halloween greeting:

Wishing every man Jack a very Happy Halloween!

Aural Illusions—Say It Isn’t So!

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
~ Albert Einstein

As it turns out, speaking a language isn’t just about using our ears and mouth. Our eyes play an integral role during conversation – and I don’t mean in terms of interpreting body language or unspoken messages. I’m talking about pronunciation. In some cases, your eyes are even more important than your ears.

Take, for example, the McGurk Effect. This phenomenon is a perfect example of the role vision plays when processing the sounds of a language. Here’s how it works:

Imagine closing your eyes and hearing a recording of someone saying the sound, “da”. However, when you open your eyes, and hear the recording again, you’re shown a video of someone making the “ba” sound. You know what often happens in this case? When watching the video of “ba” while hearing the sound “da”, people say they hear “ba” rather than “da”. It’s an aural illusion! Even when you know what’s going on, it’s hard to make your brain hear “da” while your eyes see “ba.” (This is the stuff psycholinguists live for!)

Here’s another way our eyes can fool us… it’s called the Stroop Effect. Most of us reading this would have no trouble saying the following aloud: red blue green orange.

Nor would we stumble over: red blue green orange. But a good many of us will pause a moment before saying: red blue green orange!

Why? Because speaking, with correct pronunciation, involves using every major area of brain functionality. Neurons from the regions responsible for each of our five senses–hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, and seeing–need to communicate with one another. This is a whole brain, and difficult, process. And one, by the way, that may be well worth the effort.

It appears that learning a language may be an exceptionally effective tool for delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s. As Meredith Melnick reported for TIME Healthland:

“The key may be something called cognitive reserve. Learning and speaking two languages requires the brain to work harder, which helps keep it nimble… the idea is to help the brain create and maintain more neural connections. Brains with more cognitive reserve – and therefore more flexibility and executive control – are thought to be better able to compensate for the loss of neurons associated with Alzheimer’s.”

In fact, Ms. Melnick notes that with each language learned, the longer the adult is likely to delay the onset of significant memory loss. She notes that trilinguals were three times less likely to have cognitive problems than bilinguals; quadrilinguals and other polyglots were five times less likely to develop cognitive problems.

This strikes me as a pretty good reason to learn a foreign language. And just like each of the five senses are critical to the process, so too are each of the five areas to creating true fluency: grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, and… don’t forget, pronunciation!

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?