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Why you should worry about your English pronunciation

But not stress out about your foreign accent. Pronunciation can be wrong. Accent cannot.


Globe ball in front of map

I have no idea what he's talking about...


A few days ago, I joined a large online webinar. One of the speakers on the expert panel was French. Seconds after he started his presentation, comments began to pop up in the chat: I cannot understand him. I have no idea what he’s talking about. Can someone tell him to speak more clearly? Judging by the number of comments, it seemed that quite a few people were struggling to follow along with the presentation.

 

Some of you will find such comments rude and biased. (I'll talk a bit more about bias further down in the blog...) Some of you may find them justified and understandable. What we can probably agree on is that it’s problematic when an audience cannot understand a speaker. Most of us would feel awful if we spoke at an event and realized that half of our listeners were not able to follow along.


When we step in front of an audience, we have something important to share. We want to convince our listeners. We want to be remembered in a positive way – not as the person who was hard to understand.

 

The webinar experience made me reflect on pronunciation and accent – and why it’s important to talk about these two aspects of communication.


Why you should worry about your pronunciation:


Let's start with an example: the word “win”. The correct pronunciation is [win]. If you speak to an American and mispronounce the first letter so it sounds like [vin], your American friend may be confused and think that you’re talking about the VIN (vehicle identification number) on a car.


Even when the context can help us figure out what a speaker intended to say, pronunciation errors present hurdles in the communication flow.


Lady with confused look in front of computer

Pronunciation is about making the sounds of a word or word part in a particular way. Dictionaries often contain information on standard pronunciation (right next to the word). As shown in the example above, you can mis-pronounce something. When that happens, it becomes harder for others to figure out what you’re trying to say. Pronunciation mistakes may result in confusion or even a complete lack of understanding.


Pronunciation is about clarity and understanding. And that’s why you should worry about it. By that, I don’t mean that you should have sleepless nights before your next presentation or be afraid to speak up in a meeting. I mean that you should understand its importance and put time and effort into getting it right.


Why you should not stress out about your accent:

 

Accent, on the other hand, is not about right or wrong. As a variation of pronunciation, it indicates where you are from regionally or (socio-) culturally. Your accent may be perceived as foreign, even when you pronounce all your words correctly.

 

Accents can also be hard to understand – not because they are wrong, but because your listeners are not used to them. There are a few simple steps you can take to overcome that hurdle. I talked about that in an earlier blog.

 

Your accent is part of your identity. It’s about you. It reveals a little bit about who you are – and that’s the beautiful thing about it.


Accent bias – not a reason to go changing...


graphic of head with puzzle pieces and the word "bias"

There are studies that show that native speakers can be biased against foreign accents – both, in positive and negative ways. A foreign accent can reduce a person's credibility. But even within the English-speaking world and within the United States, there are accents that are considered more prestigious than others. In addition, people have their personal biases.


If you feel that your career is negatively impacted by your accent, you can take steps to reduce it. For some people accent reduction classes can make sense to increase their career opportunities. It can also help you gain confidence, give your words more impact, and be more effective in your job.

 

It is, however, important to recognize that the problem of accent bias cannot be resolved by asking everyone who has a foreign or less prestigious accent to change it. Rather, it is much better to raise awareness for the issue and focus our efforts on reducing the biases. Remember that accent is not about right or wrong.

 

It's not about you (but you'll benefit)

 

The effort to pronounce another language correctly is, in my opinion, an act of kindness, a way to help others understand you and make communication easier. When someone can’t understand you, it’s not just stressful for you. It’s also uncomfortable for your conversation partners who are forced to make a choice: they can ask you to repeat (which may not always be possible or appropriate) or they can pretend they understood when they didn’t.


Working on pronunciation comes with benefits: When you make it easier for others to understand you, your speaking will become more effective. As a result, you will have an easier time reaching your communication goals and be successful.


Is your pronunciation holding you back? Do you need help improving your speaking skills? I offer a range of highly customized services that can help you communicate more freely and effectively. Contact me for a free 30-minute consultation (no strings attached). I look forward to hearing from you!



 


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