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Welcome to this issue of our free E-zine, People Skills for Skilled People!

Do you have one or more professional contributors in your organization who speak with strong foreign accents and often struggle to make themselves understood? Have you offered them various methods for “accent reduction” with few results?

In this issue, we’re going to take a look at some things you can do to help those valuable colleagues.

When “Accent Reduction” Isn’t Enough
Vol. 3, No.2

All of us have worked with non-native English-speaking professionals at one time or another. These are remarkable people. They’ve had to leap over considerable hurdles in their lives. Known as English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers, these people, of course, have had to secure a professional education in a particular specialty, often in a language other than their native one. Most have come from abroad and have had to learn a whole new culture here. And all of them have had to learn one of the most daunting languages in the world—English, and in particular American English! In addition, they most often learned English in their home country, without the benefit of native American English instructors or access to everyday idiomatic English. As a veteran language learner, I know well how bewildering the transition from classroom to country is, with increased speed of speech and strange new idiomatic expressions.

Challenges like these cause ESL speakers to be frequently misunderstood and left with a “gun-shy” feeling. In daily communication situations, they may be apt to hang back and not contribute actively, depriving their colleagues of valuable input. They’re often left with the feeling, perhaps rightly, that their accents have slowed their career growth. This can result in a vicious cycle, causing a professional person who doesn’t speak native English to be even more reluctant to speak up.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with such talented people, whose only limitation seems to be in making themselves understood in their American workplace. As a former language instructor, I know the difficulties anyone faces in learning the phonetic system of another language. Learners hear a new sound and render it in the best way they know how, via a sound from their native language that seems closest to the new sound. Anyone hearing speakers of French or German first attempting to render our “th” sound will hear them pronouncing “s” or “z” (“this” as “ziss,” or “thin” as “sin”).

As formidable as a new set of sounds is, I have learned that pronunciation is not always the biggest part of making yourself understood as an ESL speaker. In our diverse culture, our ears have been attuned to a wide variety of accents, and most people view a foreign accent in positive terms, seeing it as reflecting a person’s unique identity.

I’ve found that before working with a client’s accent, I take a look at five areas of his or her communication style:

  1. Rate of speech. Most languages on earth are spoken more rapidly than English, so an ESL speaker is most likely to speak too fast for the American ear. Could the client benefit by simply slowing down his or her speech?
  2. Volume of speech. After being “burned” many times by being asked to repeat themselves, ESL speakers grow less confident in their communication and begin speaking too softly. I try getting them to boost their volume at least 100 to 200 percent.
  3. Accentuation. Many languages, especially in Asia, make distinctions through tone rather than stress, as English does. This can result in a flow of speech without the major accentuation English speakers rely on for clarity. I encourage clients to “hit” key words in a sentence.
  4. Shorter sentences. In their desire to explain something thoroughly, an ESL speaker can be tempted to pack too much information into one sentence. I show clients how to break up longer sentences by limiting the number of words and ideas their sentences carry.
  5. Pausing. This is just another way of saying “take your time.” I persuade my clients to pause more between sentences, which, when combined with shorter sentences, makes anyone much easier to understand.

Now take all these factors together, and you have a recipe for clear communication. Communication clarity, in our view, is what it’s really all about, not necessarily “accent reduction.” Yet managers invest tens of thousands of dollars in “accent reduction” programs, most of which offer little chance of success.

While well meaning, most “accent reduction” programs virtually ignore these five elements of communication. Instead, they present a set of exercises, consisting of what linguists call minimal word pairs (veil-whale, thing-sing, etc.). Such exercises are valuable in helping the ESL speaker produce sounds that are difficult for him or her. The downside is that clients will usually revert to their original pronunciation in normal speech even immediately after pronouncing the pairs correctly.

ESL speakers also face the challenge of accurately hearing their actual pronunciation. This is particularly true when using accent modification software, where you’re dependent on your ability to hear a new sound and replicate it without a human informant to coach you. The charts and oral diagrams in the printed or electronic guides just can’t replace a native or near-native speaker.

In our opinion, any accent program that has a chance of success must include face-to-face instruction. While many “accent modification” programs promise quick results, experience shows that most are ineffective or take a prohibitive amount of time to achieve anything. Our best advice: check first to see if your colleague’s communication issue is truly due to his or her accent. Then check for the five factors above. You may save an enormous amount of time and money.

Yours in great communication,
Neal & Jan Palmer

If you’d like to know more about how we go about creating communication clarity for ESL speakers quickly and cost-effectively, please click on this link to our website:


Dr. Neal Larsen Palmer, a well-known specialist in linguistics and communication skills, is versed in 12 languages, mostly of Eastern European origin.

And that's our tip on People Skills for Skilled People for today!

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