Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Speaking with an Accent

I have often encountered students of public speaking who immediately declare " I want to lose my accent". To these students I generally ask "Why?". Of course they recount the details of others not understanding them in the past. And if understanding the speaker is an issue, then, well, yes, there is an issue. For most though, we can understand them just fine and there is little problem with intelligibility.

It raises the topic, however, of accents in general and how to be the most effective public speaker in a language other than your native tongue.

Intelligibility is key. If we can understand what you are saying--even if it takes an extra moment or two--you are generally okay. If we as an audience can not understand you due to the accent it is a problem and you need specific training in accent reduction and English pronunciation. (Many schools and courses are available for help with this).

Assuming you are not in that latter category, there are specific strategies you can undertake as a public speaker to maximize your effectiveness as a speaker.

First, speak slowly and pause frequently. Your audience needs a little extra time to "translate" your non-standard pronunciation. Depending on your immersion level in the new language you yourself may need that time to encode your ideas into words. Which language do you think in? If you still think in your native tongue, you will need to do your inner translation to find the right words. If you think in English, you need to make a concerted effort to slow down and pause more.

Next consider using visual aids to your advantage. If saying key words is a challenge for you, put them on slides (with definitions if needed). This goes against one of my general axioms for using PowerPoint ("fewer words, more pictures") but is a small accommodation that can help both audience and speaker. Please note that this is not an invitation to put too many words on a slide (avoid full sentences and paragraphs) just a free pass to include hard to pronounce key words on your slides.

Finally, resist the urge to under-articulate and just mumble a word you are not sure of the pronunciation for. Sometimes even native speakers do this when we are not sure how to pronounce a word. Unfortunately it makes a bad situation worse. The best thing to do is to pronounce it properly. When I am uncertain of how to pronounce a word I look to dictionary.com. For each word you will see a speaker icon. When you click on it you will hear someone say the word properly.

These are three simple ways to decrease any negative impact of your accent on your message.

Remember though that your accent is also a positive. Your accent announces to the listener that you are an international person and that you speak more than one language.The former means you are bringing the knowledge of multiple cultures to the moment which is a distinct advantage in problem solving and general analysis of issues. In short, an accent communicates that you are smart enough to speak more than one language. For someone like me, who struggled through Spanish for seven years in the New York City public school system, that's pretty impressive!

Be proud of your accent, it signifies that you speak multiple languages, which is more than many people can say.

That's all for today folks. Until we meet again, be well and speak well.

And, as always, thank you for reading!

For more information on Dan Leyes' consulting work see Semiosphere Consulting