How to Make Sure Your Accent Won’t Ruin Your Career
If English isn’t your first language and you feel less confident about your presentations, what should you do? Change your accent? Give up? No. Do what Einstein did. Be carefree, careful and learn a couple of tricks to help you be better understood wherever you go.
In the previous post in this series, I talked about the challenges that native English speakers face in talking to international audiences. In it, I said that us ‘natives’ tend to lose our audiences because we don’t really understand what it’s like to be listening hard to a speaker in a ‘foreign’ language because we don’t tend to speak any.
Americans, Brits and the rest of us tend to speak too fast, in too complex a way, with words, metaphors and references that make perfect sense in London or LA, but mean nothing in Lausanne, Lithuania or Laos. In this post I’ll look at the different challenges faced by the non-native English speaker when faced with an international audience of native or second-language English speakers.
Most people speaking English with a ‘foreign’ accent think it’s a disadvantage to them
I have worked face to face with thousands of people, all with important messages to present to the world. I have helped French, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Swiss, German, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, and a hundred other nationalities sell products, explain strategies, and recommend courses of action, most often in English.
I’ve worked with CEOs, Main Board Directors, salespeople, leaders, politicians, teachers and the humblest employees but one of the things that I come up against, time and time again, is that lots of people are embarrassed by their accent when they speak in English. Amazing, isn’t it? All of these brilliant, skilful, intelligent and successful people, speaking English as a second, third or fourth language, and yet they feel embarrassed that they don’t speak English like the Queen of England.
Does your accent matter?
Are people right to be embarrassed about their accent when speaking in English? Should they be apologising for it? Do audiences care?
My short answers to those questions are:
- No, they shouldn’t be embarrassed – their accent is a part of their identity.
- No, they definitely should never apologise for their accent, ever, to anyone.
- No, audiences don’t care about your accent so long as they can understand you.
Your accent is important but it’s much more important that you are understood
Let me say that again, because it’s a point worth repeating.
The only important thing to the audience is that they understand what you are saying
Everything else is an irrelevance. Accents are just an extra ‘flavour’ to a speaker’s impact and style. They are much more about style, than substance. Your accent doesn’t matter. Here’s a couple of examples to demonstrate:
Einstein had a foreign accent. Do you think he was stupid?
Einstein penned a piece titled ‘The Common Language of Science’, which aired as a radio broadcast for London’s Science Conference on October 2, 1941. In it, the great man traces how language developed as a tool for turning thought into sound and meaning, and evolved into ‘an instrument of reasoning’. He then argues that science is the most international language there is – humanity’s only shared tool of reasoning. It’s a brilliant bit of thinking.
Here’s the man himself speaking it out loud. As you listen to him talking, in his strong accent, ask yourself this: do you understand what he is saying? And does his accent have any effect on how you feel about him or his message?
I can only say what I think is my answer to these questions. Do I understand what he is saying? Yes. Every word. And does his accent have any effect on how you feel about him or his message? It makes me like him, listen to him and get a sense of the real man that he is and was.
But there is another, subtler aspect of the recording that makes it profoundly moving — perhaps one for those of us who live and think in a language not our native one: here is one of history’s most extraordinary minds, struggling to articulate its brilliant contents in a foreign language — slowly, imperfectly, and with almost achingly measured words.
It is a beautiful reminder of some people’s tendency to mistake the presence of an accent for the absence of intelligence — how often do people, even well-meaning and widely-travelled people, hear such verbal delivery by strangers and immediately judge their intelligence as less than their own?
It happens a lot, doesn’t it?
Lots of the non-native English speakers that I talk to feel that their accent, their lack of vocabulary and their lack of fluency is a weakness. I’m here to tell them that it isn’t.
But there are some simple things that each of them can do to build their confidence and their skills, which we’ll look at in a moment.
Victor Frankl: A brilliant man with brilliant, broken English
But first, here’s our second example of a great man, with limited English, speaking clearly and movingly to an all American audience. Viktor Frankl is one of the great thinkers of the last century. He survived Auschwitz, and spent the rest of his life trying to make sense of life and all of the joy and misery it can contain. In 1945 he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, which describes the prisoner’s life in a concentration camp from the perspective of a psychiatrist. In this work he explains that, even in the most extreme conditions of dehumanization and suffering, the individual can find a reason to live, based on his spiritual dimension.
In short, he is a man worth listening to. And here he is talking, in brilliant, broken English, about his life’s work:
Do you see what he does?
- He is utterly unapologetic (Yes, he apologises for his ‘terrible English’, but he doesn’t really mean it, does he?).
- He takes his time, searching for words when he needs to, asking for help when he can’t find them.
- He has a very strong Austrian accent, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, another really successful Austrian who has made a virtue of his natural ‘woice’, and has no problem being understood anywhere he goes.
Should you change your accent?
No, of course you shouldn’t, but you can learn to speak English with more confidence and skill, and keep your accent as a central part of your identity.
Some people wanting to be more effective at speaking in English decide that they want to modify or change their accent. It’s their decision, and in the USA, there seems to be a real market for it. Why? Because there seems to be an anti-accent movement driven by ignorance and prejudice.
Holly Niner, in a post on LinkedIn quotes a 2010 study from the University of Chicago thus:
An accent impacts the way others perceive you. The study found that foreign accents reduce the credibility of non-native speakers. Because these speakers are more difficult to understand, listeners perceive them as less truthful and this perception increases with the severity of the accent.
Really? Is this true? And even if it is, so what? Would you really want to work for a business or a person who thought like that? Would you really want to change your voice to please an ignorant minority? There are far more employers in the US and everywhere who don’t think like that, and would much rather have an authentic accent on the lips of a brilliant employee than a fake one on anyone.
Is it possible to change your accent?
Yes, of course, with lots of hard work, practice, and the help of a voice coach, or speech therapist, you can learn how to change your voice. Here’s an example of the kinds of things that you’d have to do from the English satire ‘My Fair Lady’ with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn:
You’d have to change your vowel sounds (where accents are mostly held in the spoken word), and your consonants too. You can change your whole accent, but you really don’t need to.
In much less time and at much less cost you can just learn how to speak clearly whatever your accent. And in reality it’s what English speakers should do too if they want to be understood better by international audiences. This is what Einstein and Frankl did, and what you can do too.
5 tips to help you speak more clearly in English
1. Be really sure of what you want to say
Fluency comes with preparation, rehearsal and experience. It doesn’t matter what language you’re speaking in. Many people struggle for fluency simply because they haven’t prepared their speech well enough. If you ‘wing it’, you’ll find it difficult to be fluent. Never wing it, especially for the important presentations. Your minimum rehearsal should be at least 6 practice sessions before a big speech – any less than this and you’ll be under-prepared. That will be entirely your fault and nothing to do with your English speaking skill.
2. Speak more slowly than usual
Whether English or a second-language speaker, most people who are difficult to understand, often just speak too quickly. The words and sounds run together making it difficult for the listener. They simply hear too many sounds jumbled together and have a hard time separating the words, sentences and paragraphs and therefore the ideas being expressed.
Slowing down will ensure that you both pronounce words fully and stop words and sounds from running together. This is the key to good articulation.
If you find yourself running words together, simply slow down and pronounce every single sound separately. So if you were reciting the last word in the previous sentence, you would say it sep-a-rate-ly.
3. Practice the tricky words and sounds
If you find that certain words, phrases or sounds give you trouble then practice them.
I remember way back at the turn of the century when I found that I couldn’t say the word ‘millennium’. It was a problem because it came up everywhere.
The nice thing is that it’s easy to deal with this one – all you need is practice. You can do it in the car, while walking the dog, in the shower or whenever you have a few minutes to yourself. Just get into the habit of saying the difficult words and sounds out loud as a part of your rehearsing for a presentation, and it will all come together perfectly.
Also practice those difficult to pronounce sounds and letter combinations in English. The ‘g’ sound (as in goat, got or gutter) is a hard consonant for a Spanish speaker to say. Practice the proper pronunciation of that sound as a part of your preparation, and guess what? You’ll be able to say ‘riding rings around the failing rig’, and be understood. If you don’t practice it’ll sound like ‘ridinrinnsaroundthefailinrin’and no-one will understand.
4. Fix your lazy mouth – Hit those consonants for clear separation
Consonants are the hard sounds at the start, middle and end of words. If you miss the proper pronunciation of a consonant then you become much more difficult to understand, whatever your accent.
Hitting the middle and end consonants, particularly, in complex words, is the simplest and most important skill in speaking in English to any audience. Practice enunciating the key consonants of every word that you speak.
The consonants (21 of them in English) are the hard T’s, D’s, G’s, F’s, P’s etc. These are the key sounds that break up and separate the words for the listener. That ‘breaking up’ makes it easy for them to ‘get’ the 30% of those words they need to allow them to work out the meaning of the whole thing.
If you’re saying those hard sounds properly, it’s impossible to speak too fast, so speed, accent and being heard look after themselves. Here’s some great advice on proper pronunciation for all speakers from Ann Utterback, – a great name for a speech coach if ever there was one!
As a voice specialist, I can’t listen to the news without cringing at some of the pronunciations I hear. And I’m not talking about blatant mispronunciations like ‘nucular’ for ‘nuclear’. I’m talking about the erosion of the consonants in words. This erosion can turn the word ‘center’ into ‘sinner’ or ‘ask’ into ‘ass’. This can cause embarrassment, but more importantly, it can make your sentence unintelligible to the listener.
The best voice quality in the world is worthless if it is not articulated into words correctly. Words in our language are made up of phonemes (individual sounds) that combine to give meaning. We use our articulators, the lips, teeth, tongue, and jaw, to shape sound into phonemes to make words.
The expressions, ‘lazy tongue’ or ‘lazy mouth’, indicate the importance of flexibility for good articulation. If the articulators are sluggish, it is difficult to articulate sounds clearly. Frequently this is also referred to as ‘sloppy speech’. Sometimes this is adequate in relaxed conversation, but poor articulation is never acceptable for broadcasting.
Listening to broadcasters, I hear omissions of phonemes to greater or lesser degrees. Intelligibility, credibility, and precision of pronunciation are all linked. For this reason, working to pronounce words correctly is essential.
Precision of pronunciation can be improved with practice. Try taking some copy home and marking all the ending plosive sounds (/t/ /d/, /p/ /b/, /k/ /g/) with a highlighter. These sounds should have an explosion of air when they are produced correctly. Practice by over-pronouncing these endings. When you practice in an overdone way, your brain registers the new, precise articulation more readily.
I don’t suggest marking ending consonants on your actual on-air script because it may cause you to sound overly precise. The goal is to sound conversational while articulating most of the ending consonant plosive sounds.
Tongue twisters can help warm-up the articulators as well. Repeating the phrase, ‘You see Oz’, in an exaggerated manner stretches the mouth and jaw. Any activity that brings more openness and flexibility into the mouth area and more agility to the tongue can help improve articulation
If you’re interested to build your own skills further, here’s a brilliant guide to English pronunciation on the BBC website.
5. Be proud of the authentic, understandable you
Lastly, just remember that it is your voice, your heritage, your culture and your country that you represent whenever you stand up to speak. So be proud of all of it, and never apologise for your accent. Just learn to use your instrument well.
If you liked this, you might also like
10 Tips for… Speaking in English
How to Decide When You Should Talk Fast or Slow
The Refreshing Truth About Rehearsing Your Presentation
6th July 2018 at 5:24 pm
Cool article, but… AHEM ….”Really? Is this true? ” Yes.
Just because you disagree with the moral sentiment behind it doesn’t mean you can just pretend the facts aren’t, well, facts.
I absolutely agree that it’s a daft idea to judge people by their accent but I’m afraid the research is very clear: we all do (yes, you and I too). I even agree with most of your suggested ‘fixes’ (though there’s a cheeky bit of me that’s saying if you don’t think it matters, why are you providing fixes 😉 ). It’s easy to find exceptions to the rule (and you’ve very much done that brilliantly) but how many of us start from the position WRT the audience that these speakers do? For “normal” people it’s just as the research says.
Essentially, anything that adds extraneous cognitive load on the audience reduces their germane load, reducing how much they take in and so on. Accents have the same sort of impact here as things like God-awful slides with 92 thousand and one animations and a pink-on-white colour scheme.
Got to stress though – I’m with you on the fixes!
13th July 2018 at 11:20 am
On your question – ‘I even agree with most of your suggested ‘fixes’ (though there’s a cheeky bit of me that’s saying if you don’t think it matters, why are you providing fixes)…’
As I say in the article, It does matter. Very much. I’m providing ‘fixes’ because I think that people with accents can be harder to understand if their articulation, delivery, story and supporting visuals aren’t as clear as they could be.
My thesis isn’t ‘speak just as you like and hang the consequences…’; it’s ‘…love your accent and your culture, and be mindful of the audience’s right, and need to understand.’
And the very worst exponents of leaving international audiences confused after a speech are…? Native English speakers.
The ‘cheeky bit’ in me thinks that you should read the article again. (Smiley emoticon).
29th November 2019 at 3:00 am
Hi Jim – As always you did a thorough job of researching your topic. In this article, you agree with what I have been teaching for about 30 years -that non-native speakers don’t need to get rid of their accents; they simply need to be understood easily when they speak in English. As a Certified Lessac Voice teacher, I agree that pronunciation of consonant sounds is the easiest way to be understood. I call that having good diction. When you listen to the audio of Einstein speaking, you’ll notice that he pronounces all the consonant sounds clearly, except for the “TH” sounds which he pronounces either as “D” or “Z.” Einstein is exquisitely easy to understand because his diction is so good! For the typical business professional who is speaking English with an accent, he or she can really shorten the time it takes to speak English clearly by focusing on good diction. Oh PS, sorry to be cheeky as well, but the actor in My Fair Lady is Rex Harrison, not George Harrison. As a Beatle fan, as a voice teacher who is often compared to Prof Henry Higgins and as a former actress, I couldn’t resist ribbing you a little. 🙂
29th November 2019 at 9:25 am
Not cheeky at all Sandra – just well spotted! 🤦♀️ Have changed it now! Thanks
29th November 2019 at 11:42 am
Wasn’t Rex Harrison the third best drummer in the Beatles?