In my coaching practice, I often hear that people feel they are being discriminated against due to the fact that they have an accent. Accent discrimination is rampant and surprisingly legal. The question is, why do people discriminate?
New research done at the University of Chicago suggests prejudice is only part of the problem. Non-native accents make speech more difficult for native speakers to parse, and thereby reduces “cognitive fluency”, or the process by which the brain organizes stimuli. This causes people to doubt the veracity of what is said. From “The Scientific American”:
As a test case, researchers asked people to judge the truthfulness of trivia statements. Statements were recited by either native or non-native English speakers. (Example: A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can.) The non-native speakers had mild or heavy Asian, European, or Middle Eastern accents. The subjects were told that all the statements had been written by the researchers but, still, the subjects tended to doubt them more when recited with an accent.
This has broad implications. It may be that accent discrimination isn’t really about prejudice as much as the brains inherent distaste for any information that is difficult to process. This may be cold comfort for those who have difficulty being understood on a regular basis. By encouraging both higher levels of spoken English fluency AND increasing awareness around the science of accent “discrimination”, we can increase effective communication across the globe.
Did you know that over 20% of English speakers can’t pronounce the words “espresso” or “prescription”? In my executive presentation coaching business in New York City and New Jersey, I am often stunned at how frequently seasoned presenters mispronounced words. So how can you avoid this? The problem is solved by engaging your articulators more; your lips, your tongue, your lower jaw and your soft palate. Try watching this video and take my tongue twister challenge! Post your results here.
One of the biggest concerns of my executive presentation training clients in New York City is pacing. “How fast should I speak” is a question I get a lot. I tend to think you cannot speak too slow while presenting. Adrenaline is a powerful substance, and it tends to take over a speech. Without awareness, it’s all too easy to rush. But there are those that think speaking too slow is a legitimate problem while presenting. Let’s compare two TED talks, and analyze their rate of speech, starting with Laura Galante’s speech on Russian hacking:
Now let’s check out Bendetta Berti’s TED talk from 2016:
Interesting comparison on a number of fronts. I would say she is speaking much too fast, especially toward the middle of the speech. Occasionally, she will take a break at the end of each thought group to allow her thoughts to land, but in general, she is rushing through ideas and concepts. The problem is made worse by the fact that she is mispronouncing some important words, and dropping the “th” sound entirely.
I did my best to find an example of a TED-talker who was speaking too slowly. I couldn’t find one. So I stand by my original premise; you cannot speak too slow while presenting. What do you think? Comment below or tweet me your thoughts.
What does this mean for you, seeker of English excellence? It means if you live in New York or New Jersey, it’s likely you are being judged by your accent by your peers, but not much. How could you be? It’s likely your peers (and your boss) have accents too.
The only reason to adjust your accent if you live in the Northeastern U.S. is to improve your ability to be understood. If you are regularly misunderstood, it’s imperative that you run your presentations by a coach, and get accent reduction training. If you have an accent, but you are not regularly misunderstood, don’t waste your time on accent reduction. Accents are beautiful things, and wonderful conversation starters (not to mention attractive, let’s be honest) so why try to get rid of it? Sometimes the best way to get over an accent is to simply accept it.
As an accent reduction specialist in New York City and Central New Jersey, I see a fair amount of business people preparing themselves for interviews. For the ESL executive, this can be a daunting task. If you find yourself stumbling over your words in job interviews due to your lack of English fluency, try these few tips:
1) Don’t rush – it seems obvious, but most ESL executives speak too quickly. Take a breath at the end of each phrase, and really consider what you need to do with your articulators (tongue, lips, lower jaw, soft palate) to make each sound.
2) Study beforehand – pick up an accent reduction book, or begin to work with an accent reduction coach before your interview. Pick out five core problematic vowel sounds and five core consonant sounds. Listen to the sounds, then work carefully on your articulation. Pick out words you think you might say in the interview, and run them by your coach. Work them before the interview.
3) Role play – Write out the questions you might get asked, bullet point the answers, and then role play the interview with your husband, wife or coach. The more you prepare, the less likely you will get stuck trying to pronounce a word your don’t know!