Why Do People Doubt You When You Speak With An Accent?

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.

The Science Behind Pausing While Speaking

Did you know there is science behind speaking slowly?  Researchers from the University of Michigan analyzed the phone calls of telemarketers and found that people who paused frequently during their pitch were more persuasive than callers who spoke uninterrupted.  The researchers say people typically pause about five times a minute. This speech pattern sounds more believable to listeners than when you spit out words without any breaks.

Nighat Dad’s speech above is a good example of the power of pausing.  She gives a passionate, intelligent speech, with a very powerful premise.  But occasionally she rushes, and when she does, her words come out in a nervous jumble, and she has trouble with syntax and grammar.  Her speech is markedly better when she pauses at the end of each thought.

What do you think?  Does pausing work for you?

Three Common Speaking Mistakes Made By ESL Executives

  As an accent reduction coach in New Jersey and in New York City, I hear a variety of speaking problems.  Here is a list of the top three problems I encounter, and their solutions:

1) Misplaced or Missing Articles – This is a common mistake, often made by Slavic speakers of English.  Virtually every noun in American English (except for some proper nouns) has an article before it.  The articles we use in English are “a”, “an”, and “the”. Many accent reduction students don’t realize that there are rules about which article is most appropriate in a sentence.

“A” and “an” are used with singular, non-specific nouns.  For ex. a dog, a cat, an elephant, an apple.

“The” is used with specific singular or plural nouns.  For ex. the neighbor’s dog, the largest elephant, the delicious apple.

2.) Dropping the “th” sound –  The “th” sound is unique to English.  There are two types of “th” sounds; voiced “th” sounds, and voiceless “th” sounds.

Voiced “th” – than, those, these

Voiceless “th” – think, thought, with

To make the “th” sound, place the tip of your tongue on your front teeth and blow air through your teeth.  You should see your tongue on your teeth as you make the sound.

3.) Wrong melody – the most important word in a phrase is called the focus word, and it gets a rise in inflection on the stressed syllable in American English.  In a sentence, every new idea is generally the focus word.

I lost my HAT.

Which KIND of hat?

The RED hat.

 

Does Accent Reduction Improve Your Job Prospects?

Does accent reduction improve your job prospects?  A new study by the University of Chicago suggests it does.  According to the authors, speaking with a foreign accent makes the speaker seem less truthful.  The research shows that non-native speech is more complex for the listener’s brain to understand. This difficulty causes the listener to doubt the accuracy of what they’re hearing. For example, native speakers will hear a statement such as “Ants don’t sleep” as less true when spoken by someone with a foreign accent.  So while presenting, or interviewing, it’s important to speak with a neutral American accent:

“Such reduction of credibility may have an insidious impact on millions of people, who routinely communicate in a language which is not their native tongue.” – Shiri Lev-Ari, Boaz Keysar “Why don’t we believe non-native speakers? The influence of accent on credibility”  The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA

So how does accent reduction work?  The first step is an evaluation of the client’s problem stress and syllable sounds.  From there, the client is taught to readjust their articulators (lips, tongue, soft palette and lower jaw) to create neutral American speech.  Neutral American speech is achieved by changing individual problem sounds as well as the rhythm and flow of the language.  It is intonation (the musicality of speech) that has the most impact on the listener’s ear.

If you would like to adjust your accent, contact me directly to set up a free, 20 minute consultation!

Listening Comprehension and Accent Reduction

New York City is a results driven city.  “Return on Investment” is a business hallmark, and, it often seems that “getting a return” drives nearly every decision that is made here.  Of course getting a positive result is what we all want, but it’s important to be shrewd about how we get there.  When it comes to accent reduction, the result is in the process.

Many of my clients focus on their articulators in order to change a problem sound.  They contort their tongue, lips and lower jaw into different positions in order to create the correct neutral American sound, often to no avail.  The key to changing a particular sound is learning to hear the sound first and then using your articulators to change the sound.  This seems simple, but in practice it is quite hard.  It requires slowing down the speaking process, and paying very close attention to each sound.

Take some time during your day to really listen to the individual sounds of fluent English speakers.  Can you hear the difference between the words “war” and “worm”?  Do you notice the difference between “debt” and “debit”?  Listen carefully for pitch, volume, and emphasis when picking out vowel and consonant sounds.  Take a moment to notice the overall musicality of a sentence.  How does the pitch rise and fall?  What words are emphasized within a sentence?

It takes work to stick to process, but the result will make it well worth the journey. 😉

Click here to watch a short video and to register for Speak Clear’s Small Group Accent Reduction Course!