Is my accent a problem?

Common Errors
February 18, 2016
Workplace Communication
February 18, 2016
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Is my accent a problem?

Half a dozen times a year I’m asked this question. Let’s address one important (and often unspoken) factor first – you will have your accent for the rest of your life. So will I. So will Javed, Pedro, Abdul, Maria, Jasmeet, Helmut, Xi, Chi Hoon and Natasha. It will change over time but will always be with you, as will the rhythms of the music from your culture.

Your accent is a problem if people have trouble understanding you, in which case it would be advisable to work on your pronunciation. With guidance and practice, you can make major changes to the way you sound. Often it is the influence of your first language that causes difficulties in English. Whether it’s certain consonant sounds, stress, intonation or long vowel sounds, your first language will have a bearing on the way you speak in English. Hearing yourself speak, identifying your issues, hearing how things should sound and getting expert advice on remedial action are all necessary steps to improving your pronunciation. However, your accent may not be the real problem.

One of my clients was told at an interview that his accent would be ‘an issue’. Now, I know for a fact that he was comprehensible. So what was going on here? Why was the employer using his accent as an excuse? Perhaps the employer wasn’t able to articulate the real reason. Simple racism? Perhaps, but there is a more likely reason. Client-facing roles such as account manager, public accountant, sales representative, etc., require a familiarity with cultural nuance to clinch the deal or foster a positive business relationship with an existing customer. The employer may be concealing underlying concerns about your overly-formal demeanour, an apparent lack of assertiveness and initiative, your dress sense or inability to use humour when doing business. Consequently, the employer is unwilling to take a risk with you as the face of the company, doubting your ability to lubricate business relationships. To expect you to operate like a well-oiled machine in a new environment is a big ask. The ‘accent issue’ may be a simplification of several concerns.

So what can you do if you are facing similar barriers?

It can take a long time to feel comfortable operating in a new culture, but there are things you can do to speed up the process.

Several years ago I met a mechanical engineer from the middle-east whose experience was in sales & after-sales support. His job was to service machines of existing clients and find new clients for the company. He realised pretty quickly after arriving in Australia that his English communication skills and cultural awareness were simply not good enough to work in his role. He made a very brave decision not to apply for technical sales roles for 12 months. In that time, he took up a job selling mobile phones where he could hone his skills, speaking to customers eight hours a day and interacting with all sorts of characters along the way. When I met him, he had been in Australia for four months; he sounded like he had been here for 30 years. No amount of English classes or listening to television and radio will create that depth of communication experience. He was confident, cracking jokes and using slang and idiomatic expressions, yet remained professional at all times. Once he had become easy-going and professional in his interactions in the new culture, he started approaching major companies for technical sales roles. Needless to say, he had a couple of offers from which to choose after a few weeks of networking. It is an example of identifying a barrier and removing it. It took a great deal of self-reflection and honesty to stop applying for professional roles. Most people would’ve just persisted with applying for jobs, complained about the Australian job market and lived in denial.

Conversely, I’ve seen professionals with relatively poor English communication skills and very strong accents succeed in finding employment quickly. If you happen to be in a behind-the-scenes role and you have skills in short supply, pronunciation and communication skills may not even be an issue. However, most overseas born professionals are not facing such a scenario.

Tips

  1. Slow down. Particularly for Indian speakers of English, this is the first simple step you can take. Most Indians have a profound understanding of English; they are very fluent and have a rich vocabulary. But, they may be more difficult to understand than someone whose grasp of English is poor, if that makes any sense. Think of it, if you are struggling to find the words, it can be easier for the listener simply because the tempo is slower.
  2. Have pauses between your utterances. This allows the listener to process what you are saying.
  3. Seek help. If you know that pronunciation is difficult for you and it is causing problems, get advice from an expert. Your issues can be diagnosed quickly and remedial action can be very effective.
  4. Immerse yourself in the culture. Seek out interaction through professional forums & social gatherings. Follow current affairs, read newspapers, watch the footy, listen to western music & get out of the house. Spending hours every day on job seeking sites is doing nothing to improve your interactions in the new culture.
  5. Take up voluntary (or paid) work where you are required to speak all day.
  6. Join conversation groups.
  7. Become an active observer. Watch how the locals interact in various situations and take note.
  8. Seek counsel from a mentor – someone you feel comfortable asking questions about language and culture.

OBP Australia offers a tailored approach to improving your pronunciation

https://www.obpaustralia.com.au/services/pronunciation/

… and workplace communication skills

https://www.obpaustralia.com.au/services/professional-communication-skills/

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