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.
A good percentage of my client’s presentations deal with technology and science. There are numerous hurdles to overcome when presenting technology; how to make data interesting, how to use metaphor to make complex concepts digestible, how to use wit and humor to engage the audience, etc. But the most difficult aspect of talking science for many presenters is the manner in which they speak.
I think Pranav Mistry gives a good speech here despite having imperfect English. There are moments when his excitement gets the best of him, and he talks too quickly, but the bulk of his presentation is done at a measured pace. When he takes the time to breathe in between thoughts, and slow down, he is much more clear. These “micro-pauses” allow his brain to process what his articulators (lips, tongue, lower jaw, and soft palate) are doing and gives him a moment to think about language. Most of Mr. Mistry’s pronunciation mistakes (some w-v confusion, syllable stress mistakes, problems with phrasing) occur when he is speaking quickly. His brain doesn’t have time to think about pacing, articulation and the like.
You can imagine the left frontal lobe to be a little like a busy highway. The more congested the neural pathways are that connect the brain together, the less likely they are to transmit information. If you speak fast, you clog your frontal lobe with information, and it cannot do what it does best, produce language. So take your time!
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 concurrentlywith 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.