It is an old truism that there are no two individuals in the world who are exactly the same, or as the cliché saying goes, you are unique, just like everyone else. Even identical twins, genetically indistinguishable, differ in health issues, personality, and experiences. It would be unreasonable then to expect everyone to speak the same way, it is similar to asking everyone to look like Leonardo Di Caprio or Angelina Jolie, or another “standard” of beauty. Some people do attempt to get closer to the unreachable ideal, promoted by the media, by starving oneself or undergoing expensive and dangerous plastic operations. Such changes may make a small number of individuals happier than they were before, or result in a higher income or in attracting a more attractive partner. However, most people who are trying to reach the impossible goal and cannot succeed suffer negative physical and mental consequences.
The idea behind accent reduction/elimination and requiring everyone to speak English with the same accent, is strikingly similar. It is an attempt to impose the golden standard, which is unattainable for most non-native English speakers, and can create similar negative health outcomes. Speaking with an accent, research shows, serves as an important workplace stressor, which affects not only non-native speakers’ well-being but also decreases worker engagement and productivity.
Promoting Linguistic Tolerance
I once went to a bookstore to see what kinds of materials on accents were available there. It was disheartening to open an “accent training” book that said something along the lines of “in the perfect world no one would discriminate against others based on accent, but it is not a perfect world and therefore you must get rid of an accent in order to succeed in life.” It is as if saying “women still face discrimination in the workplace (which they do, and earn on average 70% of what men do), in the perfect world they would not, but this is not a perfect world, so women should change their gender and become men.” Sounds ridiculous? I hope so.
I am not arguing that effective communication is impossible and that we should not strive to improve communication skills. They can be taught and learned. What I am suggesting is that we are missing the point if we are focusing only on non-native speakers and their accents, making them responsible for not being understood, and proposing accent elimination/reduction as the ultimate solution to the problem. The same way we came to accept racial and ethnic diversity as an advantage and a goal in itself, we must strive to accept the diversity of languages and accents, linguistic diversity. Only then, we can all learn skills to help us communicate more effectively with each other regardless of any barriers that may arise.
People are diverse in a variety of ways. The way they speak is one of them. We promote all kinds of diversity and linguistic diversity must be among them. My goal is to spread the acceptance by educating, which includes writing and consulting. Very often people are reluctant to promote an idea when they do not have enough information about it and cannot assess its importance. The aim of this website is to provide both.
The information about accents, based on scientific research, in presented in The Truth About Accents. The importance of accent prejudice and discrimination is highlighted throughout the site. However, knowledge about facts and their importance is not enough; we need to act upon them in order to make a difference.
What You Can Do AS A Native And Non-Native Speaker
Whether you are a native or non-native speaker, there are several things that you can keep in mind and that you can do:
Communication is a two-way process, which puts the responsibility for understanding the other person on both interactants. Effective communication does not mean quick and short communication, it refers to understanding what the other person actually said and what the person meant to say, assuring that both interactants have the same understanding of the exchange that has taken place. This may require a longer time, but in the end, the benefits of avoiding misunderstandings will outweigh the benefits of the time saved by communicating shortly but ineffectively.
Remember that the relationship between language proficiency, accent strength, comprehensibility, and communicative competence is complex. A native speaker’s inability to understand an accented speech may be affected by any combination of those factors and it may be influenced by his or her own beliefs about inability to comprehend accents and prejudices against non-native speech.
Very few non-native speakers are able to “eliminate” their accents, especially if they learn the language after reaching adulthood. As a result, speakers are discriminated against based on a trait over which they have no control and yet are often told to “get rid of their accents.” Keep in mind that a person speaks with a non-native accent because of neurological, physical, and psychological constraints, not because of lack of motivation or laziness.
Not everyone feels negative about his or her accent and no one should. Many individuals who speak with non-native accents consider it a unique positive characteristic, one that makes them distinct from the majority of people in a given country.
As a native speaker, you can remember that:
- Stereotypes and prejudices can affect behavior and decisions in both conscious and unconscious ways. Because stereotyping is based on basic cognitive processes, it may be difficult to avoid. However, it is possible to prevent the consequences of stereotyping. For example, if you realize that one of the stereotypes of non-native speakers is that there are less competent, you can actively monitor your thoughts and reactions. Remind yourself that just because someone speaks with an accent it does not mean that he/she is less competent and that you need to see beyond the accent to make that judgment.
- How familiar a native speaker is with a given accent and with accents in general affects how easy or difficult he/she finds it to understand the accented speech. The more you listen to different accents, the more understandable they will be.
- It takes less than a minute to get used to an accented speech. However, native speakers often get anxious that they cannot understand the non-native pronunciation, and the process of adaptation is interrupted. Relax.
- If you have problems understanding another person because of the accent, do not blame him or her. Acknowledge your difficulties. For example, you can say, “I am sorry but I am not used to hearing different accents and I am having a hard time following what you are saying, could you please slow down a bit?” Speaking a non-native language is a lot harder than writing in it, so you may want to ask your partner to write down the key words or ideas that you did not understand. You can also repeat back what you understood to make sure you understood it correctly. Make the speaker feel comfortable and show that you are willing to put in the effort to understand him or her.
As a non-native speaker, these are the things that you can remember and do:
- The way you speak does make you unique. If you speak two or more languages fluently, you are more cognitively flexible and are able to think more creatively. This is a great advantage. If you have an accent, it means that you were able to learn to speak another language, an achievement of which you should be proud, because it is extremely difficult to learn a non-native language fluently.
- Do not focus on the accent and be more assertive in communication. If you are self-conscious about your accent, you use up precious cognitive resources, which instead can be directed to speaking a non-native language and communicating effectively.
- You can use several communicative tactics to aid in a native speaker’s comprehension of your speech. Do not speak too fast or too slow, repeat your message using different words if you suspect you have not been understood, ask directly whether the speaker understood you. Often the anxiety of an interaction is lessened if the issue is stated explicitly. For example, you may want to say to the native speaker, “As you have probably noticed, I am not a native speaker of your language, which may raise some issues. I hope we can work together to make sure we understand each other.”
- You can improve your pronunciation if you have not learned it correctly in the first place. You can practice by signing up for conversations with native speakers (often on a volunteer basis), taking a community college class, or practicing on your own with pronunciation recordings. However, this will only be effective if you haven’t learned oral pronunciation correctly. If you have or if you have already spent over a year in the host country, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to improve your pronunciation. Stay wary of accent reduction or elimination classes that promise you a 100% successful outcome. Accent modification, improvement, or accent training are more accurate terms, especially if they do not promise that you will sound like a native speaker after a few months of hard work (and lots of money). Classes that use global approach to intonation as opposed to specific phonemes are more likely to be effective. Check the credibility and reputation of the company, the Better Business Bureau ratings, and whether it uses licensed speech therapists.
- You can visit the website of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to find out more about Title VII laws on discrimination based on national origin (including accent) at http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/national-origin.html#VA and http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/nationalorigin.cfm (1)
Why it is important to start now
According to the United Nations, there are over 200 million international migrants in the world, over 90 million of them are in English-speaking countries (the US accounts for almost a half, 42 million). (2) It is likely that a substantial of them speaks the language of their host country with a non-native accent, and may struggle with it every day. But the issue of speaking with an accent is not limited to those who leave their home country permanently, there are hundreds of thousands of international students, scholars, businesspeople, and employees, who may spend years in a country where they do not speak the language natively.
English is the language of international communication, because of its prevalence it has its own designation now “International or World English” and it does not belong to any specific country or group of people (although there are attempts to make it align with an already existing standard). Nevertheless, native English speakers may still claim superiority just because they happened to have been born in a country where English is the native language. Non-native speakers had to learn it, a quite arduous task, as anyone who has ever learned a non-native language can attest. Yet, on average, no amount of learning can “get rid of” a non-native accent.
Eventually, English may become a second near-native language for most people in the world, if they start learning it very early in life. But this is not the reality yet. The reality is that there are many languages and accents and we must accept it. We should all work on improving our ability to communicate with others, regardless of our language background, how we speak, and how we listen. Effective communication is crucial, but cannot be learned overnight. We can all learn it.
(1) Nothing on this site constitutes, or is meant to constitute, any kind of legal advice. You should consult an attorney or a relevant institution if you are seeking legal advice.
(2) http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/2009Migration_Chart/2009IttMig_chart.htm; calculations are based on countries where English is either official or spoken by the majority (according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_where_English_is_an_official_language)