Accent Reduction For Professionals (2015)
Chapter 1: Is Your Strong Accent Preventing you from Getting your Perfect Job?
It’s not fair, you might say. You’d be right. Nonetheless, it occurs every day.
Imagine this scenario. Two individuals interview for the same position with a corporation. Both are equally qualified. One speaks English like a native. The other person speaks with a foreign accent. Who gets the job?
If you said the native speaker, then you already know the odds are swinging that way. Everyone knows that potential employers can’t discriminate in the hiring process based on race or gender. But what if an individual were denied a position because of the accent associated with his speech? Could an employer not hire and individual based on the way he speaks the English language?
Legally speaking, I’m not sure that issue has ever been tested in court, but that is probably something that happens more often than most of us would ever suspect. Perhaps it has even happened to you. Have you ever felt you were excluded from the short list of candidates or actually not hired because of your speech and speech patterns?
If you have been the victim of this type of hiring practice, then you’ve no doubt walked out of the office depressed and angry, to name but a few emotions. You know you have to keep looking, but your chest tightens just thinking about going through the interview ordeal and hiring process again.
That being said, you’ve got to be realistic about your accent as well. Some positions require public speaking. Some even require speaking with no identifiable accent. For example, listen to all the national news correspondents. What type of accent do you hear?
None. Normally a news reporter doesn’t even have an American regional accent. Many of the native English speakers take elocution lessons to learn how to speak without an accent. Consider the actor who plays the lead in the now-defunct television series, House. What kind of accent does he speak with? If you can’t detect an identifiable accent, you’re right.
But have you ever heard him on national talk shows? He speaks with a definitive English accent. Which is natural, since he was born in Oxford, English. He’s only one of many actors and actresses who can slip in and out of accents seemingly with ease.
Granted, you may not hunger to be an actor and news reporting may not be your profession. Consider the typical business positions, though. Many of these require you to stand up and speak to a group of potential investors or clients or even your colleagues. As with the individual you initially hired you, they’re trying not to prejudge you based solely on your accent.
If your accent is so thick that you’re spending more time repeating and explaining yourself than concentrating on your method that doesn’t forebode well. At this point, your thoughts may be turning negative. “Will I ever find a job at this rate?” you’re asking yourself.
You’ve heard the saying before. “If you keep doing what you’ve always been doing, you’re always going to get what you’ve always got.”
Not eloquent. But true. So how does this pertain to you? Perhaps it’s time to take the first steps to change that accent?
No, it won’t be easy, even linguists admit this. Listen to what Dianne Markley, a professor at the University of North Texas at Denton, says about learning a second language later in life, like you did.
“It’s nearly impossible to speak any acquired later in life without an accent.” The kicker in this scenario is the research she’s unearthed in her academic research. There exists “an incredibly strong statistical correlation between judging someone as cultured, intelligent, and competent and placing them into prestigious jobs” based on the lack of an accent.
Many Americans are guilty of this when it comes to their fellow countrymen. While it’s not very popular to admit of late, you’d be astonished to discover what some northerners think of those who speak with a dialect normally associated with the south, especially with West Virginia and Kentucky. Or perhaps you wouldn’t.
Not Really a Conspiracy
Some people may view this as an intentional conspiracy or some subversive racist behavior. But Victor Arias, who is a manager partner a Heidrick and Struggles said that really isn’t the case. He’s involved in diversity practices for the executive search firm.
Instead, accents tend to trigger emotions in a subtle way. These emotions, he said, “may make a difference.” It’s clear he admits that “people “make judgments based on accents.”
This doesn’t mean this near-instant judgments are all negative, Arias added. But, this is where the idea of discrimination may appear. “Not only may someone with a Hispanic accent may be perceived as less educated,” he said. “An individual with a British accent may be seen as “more intelligent.” This occurs daily, despite the fact there’s absolutely nothing to base this judgment on except the opinion of the person listening.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. What if someone was interviewed for a job who spoke with an Asian accent? How would that affect his or her chances of winning the position?
Marley explains an Asian accept could be the edge that candidate needed if he or she were interviewing at a scientific or engineering firm. She concluded that these issues aren’t set in stone. “They’re all very situational.”
Even the intensity of the accent triggers certain feelings. Arias readily admits that someone with only a slight accent may be seen by many “as more educated or worldly than someone with a thick accent.”
He continues. “I’ve fallen for that,” he said. He has heard both the thick and thin accent and made a rash judgment. He concluded the person’s level of education based on hearing him talk and later admonished himself for jumping to that conclusion.
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight. An accent is nothing more than a pattern of pronunciation. It’s in no way a reflection of how well the person uses language. He may speak with a thick accent and speak impeccable English. Despite this, to the native speaker’s ear, he may be perceived as an individual who cannot adequately fill the position for which he’s applying.
No one is defending this behavior, especially those in charge of doing the hiring. Indeed, candidate – all candidates – should be chosen on their qualifications and only that. But that’s not always the case.
Do you recall earlier in this chapter we asked if denying a person a position based on his accent were legal? Apparently it is. Marley uses the position of a customer service representative as a prime example. One of the prime requirements for this position, she explains, is that the candidate has excellent communication skills. An individual who could not be well understood over the phone could very well disrupt the flow of business.
Again, though, this is only the tip of the iceberg, Markley explains. When an employer denies a candidate the position as an excuse to discriminate against his national original, then that’s definitely illegal. Take the case of two candidates for the same position. One candidate has a thick Hispanic accent; the other possesses an equally thick French accent.
An employer can’t choose the candidate with the French accent over the other based solely on his pattern of speech. That, in effect, would be discrimination.
As you can see, that when you interview for a job, regardless of how qualified you may be, you may be at the mercy of the person doing the hiring more so than an individual who speaks English as his first language.
Once again, we repeat. No one said that was fair. In fairness to those who do to the hiring, for the most part, these persons try hard to ignore these aspects. There’s also much on the line for them as well. There’s a lesson to be learned here for the person doing the hiring. He needs to be aware of the possibility of an unintended and certainly unconscious bias against those who speak with foreign accents.
But there are definitely lessons for those who speak with the accent to learn. Believe it or not, an accent does serve a purpose. One of the most important things it does is connect you and your family with a specific part of the world. In short, it’s part of your heritage. Viewed from this perspective, an accent is not a negative thing.
Going for the Interview
Why, of course, you need to interview for your dream job despite your accent. You can’t just wring your hands and complain, “Poor me!” You’ve already got enough stress working when you’re job searching. When you do step into that office for the interview and the door closes behind you, keep these few simple rules in mind.
First, use your best grammar. That alone will set you apart from many of the candidates. Don’t worry, your use of proper grammar practices will be heard above your accent, regardless of how strong you believe it is.
The second rule is to speak slowly. This allows your interviewer to process your words easier. Not only that, but it forces you to pay attention to your pronunciation. In many ways, you and the interviewer can reach a happy medium.
Whatever else you do, don’t get frustrated if you’re asked to repeat yourself. It’s not the end of the world. How you handle your language and accent under pressure like that has the potential to impress your potential employer. He or she may decide that based solely on your ability to remain calm under stress, you’re just the person they’re searching for.
But the best advice of all, comes from Carlos Soto, who in his capacity as president of the National Hispanic Corporate Council adds this piece of advice as well. “Prepare.” Prepare more than any other candidate.
Part of that preparation, he says is to practice your potential answers in English.
Of course, your accent shouldn’t make a difference in the hiring process. Unfortunately it does. That means you should do everything within your power to stack the odds in your favor.
In the next chapter, I suggest that the best starting place to speak more like a native is to understand and concentrate on changing where you put stress or emphasis in your words and sentences. This one step will help you in ways you couldn’t even imagine right now.