There are two English languages; the spoken language and the written language. Broken English happens when the speaker does not understand the difference between the two. In many other languages, one symbol equals one sound, hence the spoken and written languages are one. This is not the case with English. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, but there are 44 sounds in well spoken English. One letter in English can have many sounds, and one sound in English has no letter equivalent at all.
But because many foreigners assume that the written and spoken languages are essentially the same, that the English language is phonetic, they assume that if they master the written language, they will be mastering the spoken language as well. Because English is not a phonetic language, it is essential that students understand that the spoken and written languages are largely distinct, and learn their separate rules and logic. Over time, the vague connection between the two can be gleaned.
What happens to your English if you don’t understand that the “o” symbol can be pronounced many different ways? “Hot” sounds like “hope”. “Pot” sounds like “Pope”. And on and on. Mispronunciation becomes common because the speaker is pronouncing the 26 letters of the alphabet, rather than the 44 sounds of English. To avoid this, it’s important to be sure to learn the spoken language concurrently with the written language, and with the same vigor.
Understanding the difference between the spoken and written language is only half the battle. If you want to speak English excellently, you must fight against a larger, more insidious force than this basic misconception. Do you know what it is? Your Iphone. Unfortunately, we live in a society that prizes the written language to the detriment of the spoken language. How many of your friends prize public speaking, and can’t stand dawdling on their Iphones? None? Yea me too. Since Guttenberg’s time, we have canonized writing, and eschewed speaking. To win the battle of better English, you have to resist the pull of the written word, on your computer screen, Iphone, tablet, TV, ect, and begin to open your ears to the sounds of English.
The most common fear I hear from ESL executives when they come to me for help with their presentations is that they are worried that their performance is being judged based on their accent. According to many studies, they are correct to assume this bias. But are these studies really accurate? Is cultural bias based on speech the same in Wisconsin as it is in New York City? In the Northeastern U.S. and especially in New York City, there are many, many people with accents. Nearly 37% of the population of New York City was foreign born, and nearly 50% grew up with a language other than English spoken at home.
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.
When I am coaching an ESL business executive in presentation training and accent reduction at one of my offices in New York City or New Jersey, I often ask them to look at these two words:
Pete and Pet
How many vowel letters are there? There is one letter, the letter “e” (repeated three times). How many vowel sounds are there? There are two. What does this say about the English language? Namely, that it’s not phonetic; one symbol can have many sounds. Yet most English or accent reduction students are still vainly trying to learn the language by looking at the words and then pronouncing them phonetically, according to how they think each letter sounds. But as we’ve seen, one symbol can have multiple sounds. What to do?
Listen. We live in a culture that prioritizes viewing (the internet, our phones, iPad’s, etc.) and the art of listening is getting lost. But we have to hear the specific sounds of American English before we can pronounce them. It’s important to recognize that there are 44 sounds in well spoken English (not 26). Familiarize yourself with these sounds, and listen for them in your friend’s speech. Hire a coach (like yours truly) to help you drill the sounds of American English and make them habitual. Weave these changes into your conversational speech and your presentations. By prioritizing listening, you can dramatically improve the way you speak.