When you’re a kid, you can learn languages – your native language and successive languages – pretty easily. Your developing brain is able to soak in all the sounds, words, and structures of a given language.
By the time we are four years old, our brains and mouths have linked up to form the speech patterns that will accompany us for the rest of our lives.
By adolescence, our speech patterns have become so ingrained that if we learn a second language, we are increasingly likely to speak that second language with an accent. Furthermore, it is around this time that learning another language becomes much more difficult, requiring hours of study. Even if you are able to master the grammar and vocabulary of Farsi at the age of 16, you’ll probably still speak the language with an accent.
Accent encompasses the sounds, rhythms, and intonation of a spoken language by a group of people. It could be confined to language, such as Estonian, or region, such as the Texas Panhandle. While everyone speaks with an accent of some sort, we usually don’t think about having an accent in our native language.
The sorts of researchers who study how babies respond to different sorts of language have found that at a certain age, babies prefer the accent of their own group. In other words, a Jamaican baby would show a preference of Jamaican English over a Minnesota accent, and a baby from St. Louis would prefer a drawl over an Australian accent. We know that babies can tell a difference. What about adults?
When a typical adult hears someone speaking with an accent, their brain has some extra work to do before he can understand the message the speaker is trying to convey. The adult brain works through the accent like a sculptor, chipping away at the surface to get at the meaning underneath. The processing of the accent happens mostly on a subconscious level, unless the accent is particularly strong.
Accents can come with a lot of baggage in the form of how listeners perceive someone who speaks with an accent that is different from theirs. People who speak with a certain accent may be seen as more intelligent, sophisticated, or educated. People who speak with a different accent may be seen as more likely to be dishonest. And none of this has anything to do with the person himself, just his accent!
While I have discussed before how as a listener, the only way to overcome any subconscious biases you may have is to increase your exposure to those accents or dialects that might be seen in a negative light, many wonder, what can a speaker do about her own accent?
Petra is an individual who learned a second language when she was a little older. She has an accent. This accent is there because of the speech patterns that Petra developed as a little kid in Hungary. Petra, who works in the corporate offices of a chemical company in the US, wants to change her accent.
She had always had some apprehension about communicating with her team and outside vendors, but as she rose up in the ranks, her accent started becoming more and more of a problem. Petra knows that she is knowledgeable, experienced, and hardworking, but she feels that at times, her interactions with colleagues and vendors are not as clear as they could be, because of her accent.
She’s tried apps on her phone, working diligently to tap and talk to her phone on a daily basis. Didn’t work. She’s tried mimicking the voices on the television. That didn’t work, either. Petra finally realized what was missing: professional feedback from a native English-speaker.
So Petra went to Human Resources and asked about speech coaching. The training director at her company set up an appointment for Petra to meet with a speech coach. Petra chose to do the training over the computer, because it was more convenient for her.
Working with the speech coach, Petra got more than just the feedback that she needed to improve her speech. She was given special exercises to practice that were tailored to her needs, based on science, and recommended by a professional. Petra found the sessions enjoyable, and learned something new every week.
After working with the speech coach for three months, Petra still has an accent. However, she is able to speak English much more clearly than before, and some of her colleagues have even commented on how her speech has improved. She feels more confident in her position, and her feelings of apprehension about communicating with colleagues and vendors have reduced significantly.
If you or one of your team members would like more information about accent modification services, contact us. We’ll be happy to tell you more about our program. If you’re ready to change your accent using a speech coaching program that works, take our online screening to get started. People should hear your ideas, not your accent.