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The twisted truth behind accents and language proficiency

Myths about accents and language proficiency

For as long as anyone can remember, there’s always been a misconception that if you have an accent that is not “globally recognized” (i.e American or British) you can’t possibly qualify as someone who is language proficient/competent. And while that is so far from the truth, the reality is, most people believe it. Someone who sounds Asian will always be judged not on how well they can express their opinions or command a room, but on how they sound and consequently, never be good enough, because they don’t sound like Ross or Rachel on Friends.

My advice: embrace your accent. It’s your identity, your heritage and it’s what makes you who you are. If I could tell you the number of times in my training years (and it hasn’t been that long, mind you) people have expressed their desire to sound like me, regardless of their control of the language; or the minute they hear me speak, their R’s and L’s contort and mouths start twisting, we’d be sitting here all night. Having grown up with an American education, I learned the American ways and therefore I sound like I do. It doesn’t make me any smarter or any cooler than you (ok, well, maybe in other aspects, but that’s a fight for another night).

Yet, the people who have grown to understand me and really know me, claim that they once did feel intimidated when they spoke to me, or suddenly would become aware of how they sounded (I could blame it on the steely looks, but the conversation never takes that turn!) My question is, why? Why does sounding like anything make you anymore competent or less for that matter? Why is there such a strong focus on accent and not on the level of proficiency or the correct usage of the language that determines your calibre?

In any language, there’s a standard form of pronunciation that is considered “normal” and consequently, how far you deviate from that “normal” determines how severe your accent is. And how far you are from that “normal” also determines the distinction from the rest. It’s safe to assume that the British accent is high up on the scoreboard, and the rankings drop as you move East on the world map.

In India for example, there are often so many stigmas about accents; right now, you’re shaking your head, I know, but stay with me. How many of you judge each other because of how the other speaks? The North vs the South? The high-profiled call centers in the country hire the most relevant accent-oriented folks in line with the West, and it’s no secret, and we’re programmed to anticipate the best service, because they sound better. And while they’re trying to figure out the crazy charge fees on your account, they’ll give you the moon and the stars too. Because, if you can roll your Rs and Ls with just the right amount of tongue navigation, anything is possible! However, when you call your local phone provider and the poor chap’s accent on the other line is screaming all kinds of regional celebrations, you know it’s just a matter of time before there’s frustration and nothing can happen.

While it can be argued that phonetics can play a big role in your ability to communicate correctly, a regional accent does not necessarily dictate your “proficiency.” But I don’t want to argue about that right now. I want to talk about this: the disconnect, which is this social stigma that if you can’t sound like the West, you aren’t getting anywhere. As I so proudly mentioned earlier, your deviation from the “standards” set by the language, determines your accent. But that has absolutely no connection with your knowledge of the linguistics (very loosely used) like grammar, etc.

Unfortunately, English is like a dirty martini, heavily shaken and stirred, because of the richness of our own individual native tongues, there’s naturally some influence in terms of how we construct sentences and intonate our words and sentences. We’ve incorporated a great deal of Indianisms in our language and many of us don’t even know that we’re doing it. If you say things like, “What is your good name? or “Do one thing” or “we are like that only” you’re officially an offender. It’s not “passed out of college,” (surprise!) but rather “graduated college” and it’s not “each and everything” but simply, “everything or each thing.” Sorry boys and girls, but that’s not English. Now add the tumbling R’s and T’s and L’s and it’s just gloop.

The truth about accents

So, going back to the point of, speaking like a native American/British speaker:  the solution lies not in the accent, but rather in the correct usage of it; when the English language is conveyed correctly and proficiently, you show confidence and competence. Sounding like me or James Earl Jones (the guy who says, “This is CNN”), is going to mean speaking correctly first. And trust me when I say this, if you can master that, then the accent will auto correct itself. Fluency and solid control of your sentence construction exhibits the signs of someone who knows what they are saying and how they say it. It exonerates you from the binds of the stereotypes that non-native speakers from India, can’t speak English well. So yes, you do and should speak like me, but not for the same reasons as you may think.

Anyone (reliable) in the English teaching industry will tell you that first and foremost, you need to be able to express fluency and confidence when you speak; in order to do that you have to practice, be corrected and be taught. Immerse yourself in an environment that encourages mistakes and offers suggestions and corrections. All of this will eventually help you acquire knowledge of vocabulary, sentence syntax and reboot your grammar lessons once taught to you decades ago, by “Ma’am” in school.

Now many of you may be pondering about the need;

Admit it – we’re all brainwashed with our own “Indianisms” and Eastern influences, and it’s just so comfortable because everyone understands and no one’s ever questioned it before. We’ve become congenial, because we’ve learned English like everyone else around us, since we were wee babies; we speak good English, we say, but that can’t be farther from the truth. The transfer of knowledge in schools was so skewed, and the quality of teachers so limited, that most of us who were not privileged to go to fancy private schools and or learn from British nannies etc., suffered at the hands of a middle-aged woman, who knew to teach the grammar, but application was never on the list of things to do. While the British left us with their English, we haven’t really been able to hold on to it, in its true form.

Advice on how to improve your language skills

Applicable to almost any life-altering scenario, follow the 5 steps to recovery:

While right now, it may not be seem like something worth investing in, take a moment to self-actualize. Wouldn’t you feel better if you could convey yourself with more confidence at work, during meetings, or client- visits? Or when you travel and meet someone in a bar, or want to strike up a conversation with the South African driver in the middle of downtown New York? Having spent 20 years in the working industry may make you seem invincible but imagine taking a moment to realise that there’s scope for improvement, and how much more you can achieve. There are myths and then there are the realities of the situation.

Accents do not make you smarter or dumber. Or prove much.

But language proficiency matters. The real question is, are you proficient enough?

Article written by Sophia – Business English Trainer

For more help and loving support, turn to 1to1PROGRESS. An online – blended language learning solution.