Shifting Your Accent: It’s Just Another Role

People come to America from all over the world, hoping to build better lives for themselves. In the past, many immigrants came to America with few skills and little education. Now, many internationals are well-educated and highly skilled. They have the qualifications and ambition to succeed in any part of American society. Sometimes, however, there seems to be a barrier to this success. This barrier? English speaking skills.

Barriers to Understanding: Pronunciation

Well-educated immigrants to this country are typically fluent in English. Many have learned English through their home country’s schools. Typically, however, the emphasis is on writing, reading and possibly listening, but not on speaking. “My teacher couldn’t pronounce English any better than I could!” says Tomoko Oyama, a Japanese national.

If pronunciation is not consistent, Americans might have trouble understanding their international colleagues. Even a few mispronunciations can cause confusion.

Intonation matters too. Going up and down in pitch in a way that is very different from American English speech patterns can actually change the intention and meaning of what is said. “The way I said, ‘accent reduction,’ he couldn’t understand me,” Igor Pethukovano, a Russian national said.

They keep asking me where I’m from, instead of listening to my ideas on a project.

When it is co-workers or supervisors experiencing this confusion, this professional’s ability to move forward in his/her career is halted. “They keep asking me where I’m from, instead of listening to my ideas on a project,” Rahul Krishnan, an Indian professional related.

What can international professionals do to address this situation?

Everyone Has an Accent

If you are worried about your accent, first remember that everyone has an accent. An accent comes from:

  • The position of our jaw, lips and tongue when we speak
  • Intonation – how we move up and down in pitch
  • Resonance – where we place the sound

We each do these things in a particular way, and this results in particular sounds. Americans themselves have a variety of accents, and each has its own unique music. The challenge for internationals is that many Americans are unfamiliar with non-American accents, and so are less able to understand them. Still, keep in mind that it is not possible to speak without some kind of accent.

Think of Yourself as An Actor

Follow the example of actors all over the world who have to learn many different accents and dialects for the variety of roles they play. Like an actor, we all play many roles in life, and adjust the way we speak to the situation in which we find ourselves.

When you are at work, you are playing the role of “professional”. In that role, the standard American accent will empower you to be heard for your ideas and knowledge, not your accent.

Another possible role is that of customer: if you are communicating with service workers who are confused by your native accent, once again, put on the accent they will recognize more easily and get the services you need.

You don’t have to lose your culture or identity. Just put on the accent as an actor does: for the role. Use the accent when you need it, and watch yourself move ahead in American society!

Learn more about international communication skills training here.