Dictators Promote Understanding

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.

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!

Talent Management and the Meta-Message

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:

Thank you!

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!

Congratulations – You’re an Anglophone!

…And if English isn’t your first language, Anglophonic proficiency is no easy accomplishment. Like the more well known word, Francophone, an Anglophone is someone who speaks, in this case, English. “Anglo” comes from Latin and means ‘the English’; “phone” comes from Greek and means ‘sound’ or even ‘voice’. (Telephone, by the way, literally means ‘far away sound’.)

The challenge of pronouncing English sounds is vast and widely known. I’m the first to admit that an alphabet where no one letter is pronounced in only one way can drive a person certifiably crazy. Nonetheless, if you want to be absolutely awestruck by what people have managed to accomplish with sound, check out the masters of Tuvian and Mongolian throat singing. These experts, living in Southern Siberia and Mongolia, have cracked the code on how to produce more than one pitch at the same time. This is also called diaphonic voicing, or singing in overtones, and it’s a feat of incredulous proportion. As Bruce Miller describes for National Geographic Word Music in his article, Overtone Singing:

“While everyone has natural harmonics in his or her voice, the people of this remote region were able to hone in on one of these harmonics, or overtones, create a drone with one overtone and then, vocally, grab a higher pitch, which shapes a melody on top, allowing them to sing duets with themselves.”

While centuries old, this voicing technique is still alive and well. Thanks to the dedication of sociolinguists and anthropologists who’ve brought it global, throat singing still wows listeners around the world.

Perhaps it’s because we all have natural harmonics that music is the universal language of the soul. And, in like manner, everyone has an innate connection to the natural world.

Our very survival depends on it. Hmmmmmmm.

Voicing = a universal human ability = our universal connection to our environment.

I’d be hard pressed to find a clearer example than Tuvian and Mongolian throat singing of how singing reflects our link to the natural world. Tuvians divide overtone singing styles into three major types, all of which use aspects of nature to describe the sounds. Sygyt is an imitation of singing birds or gentle breezes. Xoomei implies stronger winds, and kargyraa warns of impending storms. Would you like to hear an example of throat singing? If you’re not used to it, it may seem a little SciFi’esque. I hope, as we consider the expertise of the master singers and the genre’s inherent and universal cultural/linguistic link, a sense of wonder and richness will transcend a possible, “Oh my goodness this is weird” reaction. To me, diaphonics puts my pronunciation competency to shame. Check out the music’s best known practitioner, Huun-Huur-Tu’s Kaigal-ool Khovalg, and prepare to be impressed!

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!

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!