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.

Will the Real English Accent Please Stand Up?

How many times have you heard that the British accent is “the real” accent? If we define ‘real’ as being first then, yes, the British accent is the real deal. However, let’s consider that the way American English is spoken today is actually much closer to the way it was pronounced long before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. That being the case, in strictly phonetic terms, the American accent may just be the ‘real’ English accent!

It all has to do with what we linguists call the “rhotic r”. American speakers of English pronounce the “r” at the end of a word, as in the word ‘doctor’. British speakers don’t. (It will sound more like ‘doctuh.’)

Until the early 1700’s, most English speakers referred to a person who practiced medicine as a doctor. Sometime thereafter, due to the changing socio-economic climate of southeastern England, the aristocracy made a concerted effort to change their speech pattern. They wanted to differentiate themselves from the lower classes. What did they do? They dropped their ‘r’s.

I’m not one to argue for right or wrong accents. In my book, an accent equals articulation which equals a speech pattern which equals an accent. So who has an accent? We all do!

At ARI, we provide American accent training not because it’s the real accent, but because it most closely corresponds to the way it’s most widely spoken today (in the US). The goal of American pronunciation training is not that we all include a ‘rhotic r’ each and every time, and certainly not that we all sound the same. Our goal is a simple one: eliminate language barriers by building bridges of communication.

British and American English: More than just a difference in accent!

Even though the words accent and dialect are often used interchangeably, they actually mean two different things. An accent refers to pronunciation. A dialect refers to pronunciation and vocabulary, grammar, and idiomatic phrases. Think of it this way, the Midwestern preference for the vowel sound ‘a’ as in ‘bad’, the New York City penchant to change the ‘er’ sound to ‘oi’ (as in Murphy to Moify), and the West Virginian fondness for dropping the ‘i’ sound in Ryan, so that it sounds like Ron, are all examples of regional accents.

Dialect, on the other hand, refers to the Midwestern word ‘pop’ as a kind of soft-drink, the New York ‘soda’ for its counterpart, and the Southern ‘coke’ for its equivalent… regardless if the said ‘coke’ is Sprite, 7-Up, or Pepsi.

In addition to regions within the US, there are many words that are quite different between the English spoken on either side of the Atlantic. Why is this? One reason is that the newcomers to the Americas had to literally invent words to describe their new surroundings. One way they did this was to take two known English words and combine them to create a new word. Examples include ‘sagebrush’ and ‘rattlesnake’, typical enough to frontiersmen and women but not your everyday motif in Lancashire. Another way to expand the region’s repertoire of words was to ‘borrow’ them from speakers native to the area, like the words ‘canoe’ and ‘tobacco’. Eventually these words made it into the mainstream of ‘Americanisms’.

It’s estimated there are over 4,500 words used in American English that either don’t “exist” in British English or are used in an altogether different sense. The word ‘crib’, for example, is uniquely American; the word ‘cot’ is the British equivalent.

This begs the question… with different accents, and thousands of different words, are British and American English the same language or are they really two distinct dialects?

The British Accent: From James Bond to BP

In his June 20th article How Oil and Accents made Britain a Figure of Hate in US Halls of Power, Andrew Purcell makes some interesting observations:

New York Congressman Anthony Weiner summed it up for NBC television: “Whenever you hear someone with a British accent talking on behalf of British Petroleum they are not telling you the truth. That’s the bottom line.”

Other politicians have been as quick to grandstand, sensing an easy, ­populist target. Senator Kit Bond referred to “British Pollution, if you want to call it that.” Sarah Palin, whose husband worked for BP for many years, urged people who live in the Gulf states to “learn from Alaska’s lesson with foreign oil companies” – glossing over the fact that BP is 40% American owned, after merging with Amoco a decade ago.

…“There was a desire to point out this is not an American company,” said Joe Romm, senior fellow at think-tank the Centre for American Progress. “But the biggest problem has been Tony Hayward. If he hadn’t been so repeatedly tone deaf, we would have seen less anger. He’s British, he sounds British. Maybe there’s a perception there’s something especially British about his insensitivity…”

This is an interesting turn of events for those of us familiar with a term we refer to as “linguistic profiling.” Just months ago, when an American heard someone speaking with a British accent, the speaker was immediately granted twenty additional IQ points. Images of James Bond and Monty Python co-creator John Cleese came instantly to mind. There was an air of romance and intrigue associated with a British accent. Now, due to a national tragedy, those with a British accent are seen as untrustworthy, a group of “them” who Americans should avoid at all costs.

The stereotypes that we have about accents and the people who speak with them come from the media, our own past experiences, and/or historical events. Although they are not necessarily accurate, we need to recognize they do indeed exist. And, as we see with BP, they’re very fluid and can change quickly. However, the bottom line is what we say is always more important than how we say it.

The World Cup Changes its Accent

For World Cup aficionados, have you noticed a change in this year’s ESPN broadcasting? This is the first time in history that every ESPN/ABC main announcer has a British accent. Lead broadcaster, Martine Tyler works for London’s Sky Sports and was named Premier League Commentator of the Decade in 2003. Tyler will be joined by three other play-by-play announcers: Derek Rae, Adrian Healey and Ian Darke. The only American accent expected to be heard is that of John Harkes, a former American captain, and solely during the US-England matches.

There’s been speculation as to why ESPN/ABC decided to have an all British sounding cast. The reason I’m most familiar with is, since England invented the sport and has the most historical experience with it, a British ‘voice’ sounded more authoritative and professional. But some American soccer fans don’t seem to regard the reason, regardless of motive, worthy of the change. To these fans, an all British news casting team reporting on behalf of an American broadcasting agency is nothing short of ‘unpatriotic’.

I tend to think of accents in terms of phonology, not politics. For the World Cup, what exemplifies a country’s greatness is not its particular speech patterns. Rather, its athleticism and sportsmanship. So does it really matter if a broadcaster pronounces his ‘r’ like Brian Williams or Sir Alastair Burnet? I think we should focus on what matters most: supporting our teams and the international soccer community with loud cheers…of every accent out there!

What do you think? Is ESPN’s choice of an all British broadcasting cast a political issue?