In this Speak Previews®, ECG Principal Lynne Howell Wiklander discusses the issues and rewards of speaking with an accent.
We at ECG sometimes receive inquiries from individuals who want to "fix" their accent. Our first but generally unspoken response to such inquiries is: "What? Is your accent broken?"
While our muted reply may at first seem insensitive, the truth is that the "problem" of accent is not so much something that needs fixing as it is a perception that needs changing.
Whose perception? The speaker's.
An accent can become a distraction for the speaker when audiences call attention to it. Most listener comments are well-meant. "Oh, what a cute accent!" one might say. Another may compliment your language use and then follow with questions about your country and language of origin.
Most speakers' instinctive response to such comments is that the listener has trouble understanding them. Consequently, they will try to reframe what they are saying, using more complex constructions, speaking more loudly, or in the worst case, falling into an apologetic mutter about how the language is not their native tongue and stop speaking altogether.
It's little wonder, then, that one's accent is perceived as in need of fixing.
If you are speaking in something other than your native language, the following suggestions may help you align your perception with your performance.
The moment you begin speaking, most audience members will tune their ears to listen and adjust to any accent they hear. But if you apologize for having an accent, you are giving the audience permission to discount your words or to listen passively—and a passive audience may be your nemesis.
Instead, recognize the advantage that a dialect or accent can provide. When you're identified as a non-native speaker, you receive "permission" for your accent and for any attendant verbal irregularities. Such permission increases your audience's level of attention and acceptance, and that benefits you
Speakers tend to be adrenalized, talking more quickly when they are under stress. In addition, some languages and even their dialects differ in the rate at which they are spoken. A rapid pace can create challenges for listeners. Make a conscious effort to speak slowly and pause purposefully.
What's true for all speakers is true for those whose speech is accented—keep it simple. Avoid vocabulary, diction, and grammatical constructions that are overtly complex or difficult to articulate.
When we are asked to repeat ourselves, we often say exactly the same thing, just louder. While doing so is appropriate if a listener didn't hear you, it doesn't work in cases of misunderstanding. For those, instead of repeating yourself, restate your message using slightly different words.
Work with a native speaker who can help you practice your skills and provide support in a safe, relaxed environment. Friends and colleagues are usually happy to serve as an audience. Check the internet, too—one of our favorite English pronunciation sites is howjsay; it's easy to use and usually notes differences between American and British usage.
Although a very heavy accent may sometimes require the direction of a professional coach, most accents do not interfere with communication. Speaker confidence reduces the likelihood of interference, as does an ability to acknowledge and manage audience needs and expectations. Incorporating our tips will help you increase both, creating a change in perception that frees you to use the advantages that an accent offers.