Tag Archives: foreign accent


English spelling: don’t let your pronunciation go awry (or is that ‘aw-ree’)?

How do you pronounce ‘awry’?

Those who’ve worked with me before will know that I talk a lot about spelling.

I remember as a student using the word ‘awry’ (meaning something that’s gone wrong or askew) when speaking about something and pronouncing it ‘aw-ree’.
Then one of my friends gently remarked, ‘do you mean ‘uh-RYE’?
My friend didn’t actually laugh at me, but it was still quite embarrassing. I obviously wasn’t as well-educated as I thought!
I knew what ‘awry’ meant, but then I’d never heard it out loud: I’d only ever seen it written down. And I followed the rule that ‘y’ at the end of a word sounds like ‘ee’.

Written English vs. spoken English

Whether or not English is your first language, like most of the people I work with you’re probably totally at ease with writing English.
The problem is, writing English and speaking English are very different things. And people who are familiar with written English, and comfortable using it, often have a difficult time expressing themselves in speech as readily as they can in writing.
I think there are two reasons for this:

1. English spelling doesn’t match English pronunciation

foreign signage in English full of spelling mistakes
English spelling: read this sign out loud, it’s pronounced the way it’s written!
I don’t need to tell you that English spelling can be a bit tricksy. Are there two c’s in ‘accommodation’? Is it ‘night’ or ‘nite’? And when you wrote that embarrassing email to your boss about how you ‘ red the report and their are no problems with it’, when of course you meant ‘read the report and there are no problems with it’, why didn’t the stupid spellcheck pick it up?
That last one is a real example: the client who shared that with me was mortified at having his mistakes corrected by colleagues! ’It sounds right when you read it out loud’, he said.
He’s correct, of course: ‘red’ sounds the same as ‘read’.  But English spelling is a very unreliable guide to how pronounce words.

2. Writing is all about WHAT you say: speaking is about HOW you say it, too    

Writing well is about structuring your statements coherently, getting the right overall tone, and choosing the right words. If you get all of that right, correct spelling is the icing on the cake: it’s a simple matter of proofreading (or running spellcheck!)
Speaking, on the other hand, is not just about WHAT you say but HOW you say it.
Are you articulating clearly? Do the words sound the way your listeners are expecting them to sound? Basically, are they going to fully understand what you’re saying?

‘Walk’ or ‘work’?

A statement you make in writing, all spelt correctly, could be completely clear: but if you say the same thing out loud, would it be properly understood?
For example: I worked with a doctor who used to often ask his patients:
“What kind of work do you do?”
It’s a simple question. But they often used to misunderstand him, because with his West African accent, they thought he was asking them about the way they walk!
It became clear that he was used to seeing a letter ‘o’ in a word and pronouncing it short, like the ‘o’ in ‘hot’. So ‘work’ sounded like ‘wok’ – which sounds a bit like ‘walk’, when it should rhyme with ‘jerk’ and ‘perk’.
But it’s not obvious that a word spelt ‘-ork’ should be pronounced ‘-erk’, is it?

Making sense of spelling

In my coaching sessions, we work with SOUNDS first and foremost. Then we look at all the different ways there are to spell a sound, so that you learn to associate the sound you’re making with the common everyday words you’re familiar with in writing.
Sometimes it means learning to break that very strong mental link we all develop between letters of the alphabet and the way your brain has trained itself to pronounce them.
As I always tell the people I work with: we have to get back to thinking of language as a collection of sounds, and words and phrases as strings of sounds, rather than arrangements of letters.
Think of it this way: there are far fewer sounds in standard English than there are ways to spell those sounds.
The ‘oo’ sound in ‘food’, for instance: you can spell it ‘ue’ as in ‘blue’, ‘iew’ as in ‘view’, ‘o’ as in ‘do’… there are many more! So speaking clearly is actually EASIER than writing clearly!
Except with words like ‘awry’…

Accent reduction classes: How do you tell someone?

Other people’s accents: a world of confusion

When I describe to people what I do, they always tell me about someone at work, or someone they have to speak to on the phone,  whose accent they can’t understand. (IT support departments in India is the most common one).

But of course, they’ve never said anything. They just muddle through, sometimes pretending they understand, usually asking that person to repeat her- or himself, always getting terribly embarrassed by the whole thing – and if they’re embarrassed, imagine how the person with the ‘strong’ accent is feeling!

“Sorry?” Understanding other accents

Read this blogpost for some good advice about how to cope with unfamiliar accents at work: point 1 is my favourite. If you yourself speak steadily and carefully, and make sure your own speech is crystal clear, it’s very likely that the person you’re talking to will start to do the same.

How can I put this…?

A ‘strong’ accent is a difficult subject to raise with people. It’s like telling someone they have bad breath. Even if you’re a manager or HR professional, used to giving direct and honest feedback, extra sensitivity is needed with this one.

It’s more complicated than other kinds of feedback, on areas like people skills or personal presentation. Most organisations have a culture, with particular rules and conventions, which applies to everyone; most people expect to adapt themselves to their work environment to an extent, whether it’s in the way they dress, or the vocabulary they use.

But a person’s speech is a different matter. It’s part of who they are and where they come from, so being told that that part of them isn’t acceptable, if it’s handled badly, can be taken as a major affront. It’s very hard not to take it personally: at worst, it can feel like discrimination.

Accent and office politics

I’ve also known occasions when difficulty understanding an accent – whether genuine or feigned – has been used to diminish or undermine a person. For a pretty vivid example, watch the video of Russell Brand being interviewed on US television: at points when he’s in full flow, and has  his interviewers on the back foot (watch at 4’38 and 7’32 specifically) they try to take the wind out of his sails by claiming they can’t understand his Essex vowels. Genuinely, or is it just a sly tactic?

If a strongly-accented employee or colleague feels like something similar is going on when you tell them you struggle to understand them, it can really damage the working relationship.

A solution, not a problem

So how do you tell some they need accent reduction classes? I’ve spoken to a range of employers and HR professionals about this, and to be honest,  no-one has a foolproof method for starting this conversation. (Trust me, I’m working on it!)

As with the coaching I do, it all depends on the individual, and the relationship you have. Sometimes it can be done with an informal chat; often it works when it comes as part of an otherwise glowing appraisal or performance review (‘you’re doing fantastic work, we’re really pleased, the only area we really need to work on is communication skills…’)

It’s always more effective to talk about how accent reduction classes would benefit the individual, rather than how they would help everyone else. It’s not about making life easier for everyone else, it’s about making life easier for the accented person: enhancing her skills, her effectiveness, her confidence. ‘Imagine how much more satisfying and productive your working life would be without all that confusion, embarrassment and timewasting!’ (Or words to that effect…)

Accent-uate the positive

So if there is someone you know, a colleague or a friend, who’s frustrated at having to repeat him- or herself all the time, or who hates being asked to speak in meetings, it could be that they would love to get help, if others weren’t too polite to tell them about it. Saying something could be the biggest favour you ever do them. Just remember to emphasise the benefits for them, rather than all the benefits it might bring to you!

One tip though: if you’re in HR and you’re recommending accent reduction training to a member of staff, it always goes down better if the company is offering to pay for it :)

Click on ‘Contact Me’ above to find out more about accent reduction and confident speaking. Til next time…

Still from The Kings Speech with Colin Firth

Confident speaking and the ‘correct’ way to speak English

Which is more important, confident speaking or accurate speaking – getting the accent ‘right’?
I gave a talk on this topic earlier this month to an audience of Chinese and British-born Chinese (BBC) professionals in London.

‘if I just get the accent right I’ll be good at speaking’.

When it comes to confident speaking, especially if English isn’t your first language, some people see accent as a shortcut: ‘If I just get the accent right I’ll be good at speaking’.

It doesn’t really work like that.
Correct pronunciation is important for making yourself understood, of course.
But the thing is, as long as the speaker is communicating effectively, most listeners can cope with a bit of an accent. What people find difficult to listen to is someone who doesn’t sound confident.

Someone who mumbles, or speaks too quickly, or hesitates a lot. And a flawless English accent won’t cure you of any of that.

And while we’re on the subject of ‘getting the accent right’… which accent?

What is the correct way to speak English anyway?

Confident speaking for non-native English speakers
Does it matter if non-native English speakers don’t master ‘the accent’?

There’s still an assumption that there is a ‘correct’ accent, a sort of official form of English. You know the sound I mean? It’s not exactly ‘posh’: it’s not the Queen’s English, but it tends to be spoken by middle- or upper-middle class people in the south of England. Linguists call in Received Pronuncation or RP. It’s the kind of accent you hear from most BBC newsreaders.
As for whether that’s the correct way to speak, it’s interesting to look at the question in the context of English as a world language.
Heather Hansen, a Singapore-based voice and speech coach, uses some cold hard figures to get a sense of perspective:·

Worldwide number of native English speakers:         400million

Number of non-native English speakers:                    1.4billion

English speakers in the UK:                                               57million

Native speakers of RP or standard English:                1 million

RP English is native to a tiny fraction of English speakers – even within England itself! Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the English spoken in the world at any given moment sounds like this – and yet all those other billions of English speakers across the globe, despite having the ‘wrong’ accent, manage to get by somehow!
When you look at it like this, it doesn’t make sense to think of RP, or BBC English, as ‘correct’ English.

As long as English is clear, consider it correct.

This was an especially relevant issue for a lot of the audience at this event: all fluent English speakers, if not bilingual, although most of them – whether Chinese-born or British-born –  that I met spoke with a Chinese or Asian-sounding accent. Some of them talked about wanting to ‘improve’ or ‘speak with a better accent’.
Should they strive to sound more English? Hmm. There are around 300 million people in China alone who are learning English – five times the population of the UK (thanks again, Heather). Maybe it’s us Brits who should be learning a Chinese accent!
Instead of a crash course in how to do an English accent (see a previous post if that’s what you’re after) I took them through the first steps of my Effective Speaking program – simple techniques for for confident speaking, including how to use vocal tone, rhythm, pace and pitch to make your speech easier to listen to.
These techniques inspire confidence because they’re practical: if you understand HOW to speak effectively, you feel more in control of how you communicate, and that confidence will spread to your listeners. They’ll be more inclined to listen to someone who sounds confident in what she’s saying, and do you know what’s interesting?
The more confidently you speak, the less we hear the accent. The less trouble we have understanding you.

So I would say to anyone wondering about whether they need to get the English accent ‘right’ – what do you want? Do you want to sound English? Or do you want to really communicate?
I can help you to do either. But however you choose to sound, make sure you speak with confidence.
Contact me to find out more. Thanks for reading!