Recent research shows that employers and newcomers value language and communication skills quite differently. Where 95 per cent of employers consider these skills to be very important, only 27 per cent of newcomers do. Thus, expectations regarding appropriate communication skills and their importance vary wildly between newcomers and their potential and actual employers.
Internationally educated professionals often work in English-speaking environments for years with few language or communication issues. They come to Canada with the understanding that their professional experience is in demand and, consequently, they expect to get a job in their field quickly.
If others find it difficult to understand your pronunciation, they may lose interest, get frustrated, misunderstand and, unfortunately, misjudge you.
Only after endless applications and rejections, or years in a position with no promotion, do these professionals start to reflect on what may be holding them back.
And what might that be? “There’s a requirement in the job which they are not able to fulfill due to a communication limitation,” says HR professional Nicole Stuart of Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP).
Step One: Identify the Communication Limitation
Your ability to participate comfortably in a conversation depends upon language and context. Understanding the culture, being familiar with the topic and concepts being discussed, knowing the idioms and vocabulary being used – all these factors make communication easier. But, if others find it difficult to understand your pronunciation, they may lose interest, get frustrated, misunderstand and, unfortunately, misjudge you.
The first step is to identify where the communication limitation is. If it’s related to accent, don’t expect to be told — managers are often reluctant to point this out. “At the end of the day, if your employee has a performance gap, it needs to be addressed,” says Stuart. “You can open the door and try to give the employee the chance to self-identify… A manager would never be coached to say, ‘You’re not clear in your communication because of your accent.’”
Many managers are nervous about pointing out accent issues since this can often be interpreted as discriminatory — and in many cases, it might be. But often, concerns about how accents may inhibit easy communication are very real. According to Stuart, a better approach for a manager would be to say: “‘The delivery of that communication was unsuccessful. What do you think are the reasons?’ Get the employee to self-identify.”
Most people will never be able to completely eliminate a foreign accent, and this should never be a goal. But with some time and commitment, it is possible to moderate your pronunciation enough so that you can be easily understood.
It’s important to be open to accepting that your accent, if it’s very different from the dominant accent in the region, may be causing a communication gap or raising concerns about clarity. If you believe accent may be an issue for you, the next step is to explore the issues in more detail.
Step Two: Look More Closely at the Problem
Let’s look at a few scenarios I have experienced with my accent clients:
Dev worked on his presentation all weekend. He was careful to fit in everything he wanted to cover, but time was tight and he would have to speak quickly. While he presented, his clients seemed distracted. At the end, they asked a few questions that he had already covered quite extensively. They said they would get back to him, but never did.
ISSUE: Speaking too fast with few pauses makes it difficult for listeners to accommodate for accent differences, since it’s hard to know where an idea starts and finishes, and there is no time to figure out any words that are pronounced differently.
Canada had just signed a free trade agreement with Colombia. When I asked my client what Canada exported to his country, he said, “Weed.”
ISSUE: “Weed” is slang for marijuana, but my client meant “wheat.” The difference between those two sounds is primarily in the vowel length. In “wheat,” the vowel length should be very short before the voiceless T. In “weed,” it is longer before the voiced D.
Ricardo had just received a document with some serious mistakes in the data calculations. It had to be fixed before they could move on. He approached his manager with the page in hand and said, “This shit is all wrong.”
ISSUE: Ricardo meant “sheet.” The issue is the difference in the long and short “I” vowel. To pronounce the long vowel in “sheet,” we hold the tongue high at the back, sounding more like “iy” than “I.”
Most people will never be able to completely eliminate a foreign accent, and this should never be a goal. But with some time and commitment, it is possible to moderate your pronunciation enough so that you can be easily understood. The speed with which you improve and the degree of improvement depends on several factors:
- The quality of instruction
- Your openness to change
- Your desire to improve
- The time you spend in focused practice
- Your innate ability
Step Three: Get Self-Aware, and Then Get Going
So what is the next step? Be open to the possibility that clarity may be an issue — but explore other aspects as well. I had one client come to me, concerned about accent, when the issue was really that she talked too much, so people would cut her off. In another case, the client acted insecure by waving her hands around too much, when she simply needed to remain more still so others would see her as more authoritative. There are many reasons why people will disregard, question or interrupt you. Self-awareness is very important in all aspects of communication.
If you have determined that your speech is unclear, decide to work on it. Classes can be a good starting point, and there is a lot of material available on the Internet. But because many people have difficulties with identifying the issues, refining your accent may require private instruction. Either way, you must be open to change and willing to put what you learn into practice. Moderating your accent may involve adjusting your public image, your self-perception and your personality. Be open, use the tools and be patient — your pronunciation can and will improve.
Heather Chetwynd has worked for over 30 years in the field of adult education and ESL. Holding a Master degree specializing in voice and adult education, she specializes in accent modification and culturally appropriate communication. She is Founder-Director of Voice to Word Consulting, which focuses on assisting non-Native speakers refine their English communication, and is professor at Sheridan College where she teaches Canadian Workplace Culture.