ACCENTuate the Positive: Dealing with ‘foreign’ accents
M. Garlinda Burton posted on 2/11/2014 4:08:00 PM
Every speaking person has an “accent.” We U.S.-born people, especially, tend to forget that fact.
But, in our increasingly diverse society and the expanding global, commercial culture, we are more likely than ever to do business with and talk by phone with persons from beyond the United States. It’s time we learned to embrace it.
Native English speakers in Zimbabwe, speak English tinged with a blended British/Shona cadence. If a speaker’s first language is, say, Spanish, and if they learned English as a second language, there are usually notable intonations (e.g., Few if any words in Spanish begin with the letter “s,” so many native Spanish speakers using English might say “especial” for “special.”).
Add to that the fact that most native-born U.S. citizens speak only one language — English — and that we are such a large nation that most of us don’t have regular social interaction with people from other-than-English speaking nations. It makes sense that we have more difficulty navigating international “accents.”
It helps to be reminded that your accent — remember, you have one, too — may also be a challenge for other people. I’m from small-town North Carolina, and while my parents insisted on proper English and good diction, I grew up hearing and learning as “proper” the words “dorter” (daughter), “KEWpun” (coupon), “nimber” (number) “young’uns” = young ones (and if my Granny was yelling it, we’d better be front and center in five seconds!) and “fixin’ to” (preparing to).
My husband grew up in Chicago, and used the harshest “R” sound I’d ever heard; and he pronounced the word “doll” as if it rhymed with “pal.”
So even across the United States, we have diverse accents and sometime have trouble understanding each other.
I think the most parochial among us can learn to communicate with people from around the world whose accents are markedly different than one’s own, if you’re willing to make a few changes in your own perception and style of speaking.
A first step is to free your mind of the notion that your pattern of speech is universal and superior. Think: “English” doesn’t “belong to” the United States. In fact, it is taught and spoken in many nations around the world, with diverse inflections, variations and even conflicting notions. (After eight generations, my own extended Carolina family cannot decide whether A-U-N-T should be pronounced “aint,” “ant” or “auhnt”.)
A friend from England constantly chides me for speaking “American” and not “English,” because what he calls a “jumper” and a “car park,” I call a “sweater” and a “parking lot,” and so on. We laugh at one another, but I remind him that, although I love his elegant Shakespearean cadence, the English language doesn’t belong to one country, ethnicity, region or tribe.
So openness to the reality that English is spoken with many accents is a first step in having a better encounter, by phone or in person, with a person whose accent is markedly different than yours and with whom you’re having trouble communicating.
A second important tip is to slow down and enunciate as you talk. When we are speaking our native language, we tend to speed up a lot more than we realize. Yesterday, I had to rewind a phone message three times because the person said her name and phone number so fast and slurred that I couldn’t catch it, even though we’re both U.S.-born, Southern and native English speakers.
A majority of people, especially in casual settings and by phone, run words together until they are almost unintelligible, especially to a person who is speaking English (in this case) as a second language and across the wires. For instance, I understand when my teenage grandson answers a question with “Owohno” or “Ayainsednun”; but a native French-speaker might have no clue. (FYI, he means, “I don’t know” and “I ain’t said nothing’.” *Sigh*)
Particularly when reciting phone numbers, spelling names, recounting financial information, etc., it helps the listener if you slow down and say the words clearly. (Tip: It is not necessary to yell, however.)
It is equally okay to ask the other person to slow down and enunciate as well. It is appropriate to ask, “Could you repeat that and let’s talk more slowly? Could you spell that? Our accents are different, so slowing down will help.” In fact, being direct, honest and respectful may allow a better and clearer interchange.
Finally, if you’re in a business or other formal setting with people from different nations and who may be speaking English as a second language, try to stick with uncomplicated expressions and avoid colloquialisms. Many slang expressions just don’t translate. (You should have heard me trying to explain “twerking” to friend visiting from Burundi).
Said another way: It’s probably not advisable under any situation to describe the coworker who botched the international customer’s order as being, “dumber than a box of hair.” And if the customer learned formal English in his native Bulgaria, he will more likely just be confused by your colorful expression.
International communication is a fact of life in our communities, workplaces, schools, homes and other social settings. Succeed by opening your mind, speaking more slowly and clearly, and thinking before you speak. Come to think of it, that’s good advice even when you’re talking with someone whose accent is exactly like yours!