Three guys are out walking. The first one says, “Windy, isn’t it?” The second one answers, “No, it’s Thursday!” To which the third replies, “So am I. Let’s go get a beer.”
While it’s easy to laugh – it’s a joke, we’re supposed to - there is a serious point behind this festive communication blunder. The way you speak, particularly if you have a strong accent, can present a real challenge when it comes to making yourself heard and understood clearly.
If you are speaking in a language that is not your mother tongue, you may feel your accent puts up barriers for you at work or in your personal life, perhaps leaving you lacking in confidence when it comes to communication. The great thing is there’s plenty you can do to overcome this - here we look at a few ideas.
Does having a strong accent affect your self-esteem?
Let’s think for a moment about how those first two men might feel at being so completely misunderstood by their peers.
Have you ever been in a situation where the words coming out of your mouth were met with blank looks and confused expressions? If you speak with a strong accent, whether it be regional or the fact you’re speaking English as a foreign language, you may find this happens more frequently than you’d like.
If you struggle to get your message across clearly it can impact your confidence, it may also make you feel like an outsider or different somehow to your peers. If you find specific sounds difficult to master, or you occasionally find yourself laughed at because you’ve said something unintentionally funny, you may feel frustrated that you can’t seem to make yourself better understood.
At work, maybe you feel like your accent is becoming a barrier to your progress, diluting your message and even causing people to doubt your abilities. There’s nothing more frustrating than delivering a speech only to be greeted by the response, “Ooh, where are you from?” Because your audience has noticed your accent and focused more on this than the words you were using.
Small steps to becoming better understood
So what could our pub-going protagonists do to make sure they’re better understood by their counterparts in the future?
We would never suggest that the route to speaking more clearly is to erase an accent completely. Accents are important, they are a crucial part of our identity. In that way, they are vital to our sense of self and they should be celebrated.
Improving clarity is about accent softening, taking the ‘edge off’ and working on specific sounds that are leading to issues with understanding. It’s interesting that when we learn a new language, whether as a child at school or later in life, we are taught how to speak it using words. We are not taught the unique sounds that are the building blocks of these words.
And yet, it is these that are integral to the way a language is spoken. If we simply transplant the building blocks of our native language to a new language, we end up with a set of sounds that don’t always fit. Which in turn leads to confusion and mispronunciation. For most non-native speakers it’s pretty tricky to work out which sounds are missing, let alone how to create the new sounds.
An example would be the ‘ee’ and ‘i’ sound you’ll find in sheep and ship. Many accents and languages have just one sound for both of these, whereas English has two distinct vowel sounds. Because of this, there will often be a mixup for non-native speakers as each word can accidentally be made to sound like the other. Many of our clients tell me that, because of the mix up with the ‘ee’ and ‘i’ sounds, they are afraid to say a simple line like “I went to the beach yesterday” and for good reason!
So, what can you do?
We have helped many people to build confidence and master vocal techniques which help them communicate more clearly. If you feel your own accent gets in the way in certain situations, here are some techniques that might help you to feel more confident:
Practice makes perfect for problem sounds
We have lots of useful exercises that address specific problematic sounds. Let’s concentrate on the pronunciation of the words ‘sheep’ and ‘ship’. Getting this right requires you to differentiate between the sounds ‘ee’ and ‘i’.
The first step is to work out how your tongue needs to move to create the different sounds.
Make the ‘ee’ sound by squeezing the middle of your tongue to the roof of your mouth and smiling. Putting your index finger between your tongue and the roof of your mouth can help you to feel the squeeze. Once you’ve mastered this, drop your tongue slightly so it’s holding rather than pressing your finger. Smile a bit less and you should be able to create a shorter ‘i’ sound.
To practise in true Christmas style, open the Quality Streets and find your favourite soft centre. Place this on the middle of your tongue. Make the ‘ee’ sound by squeezing your tongue to crack the chocolate, enjoy the delicious middle and then hold the chocolate on your tongue for the ‘i’ sound.
Learn to master key spellings for improved pronunciation
Did you know that 84% of English spellings are regular, 13% are irregular but with rules and for 3% there are no rules? That final 3% is made up of common words such as ‘was’ and ‘because’. By learning the ‘rules’ as well as the exceptions, you’ll know what to look out for to help you understand the correct pronunciation of words.
For example, the letter ‘o’ can be pronounced as an ‘u’ sound (like in hut) as in ‘love’ or ‘London’. And the letters ‘ou’ can also be pronounced as an ‘u’ - as in the word double: “Double helpings of Christmas pudding please!”
Take some short cuts/ quick wins
There are certain facets to any language that are likely to give away the fact that you’re not a native speaker. But by picking up some short cuts along the way you’ll be able to gain confidence in using many of them. We love teaching short cuts as they give an instant lift to your use of language and help you to come across more naturally.
- The ‘schwa’ sound is an example of this. It’s the most common sound within the English language but is not represented by one specific letter or group of letters. It is the unstressed sound in words and usually comes across a little grunt. The schwa usually appears in words that have lots of syllables and also in grammatical words. Crucially it provides the melody and rhythm in speech, making sure that the important words and syllables get heard and everything else takes a back seat. The use of the ‘schwa’ prevents forced over-pronunciation that might make words sound clipped.
- The sentence below shows the unstressed schwa sounds as they would be pronounced by a native English speaker. Some may well be surprising. The beauty of it is that speakers get to concentrate on all the important words and sounds, making sure their listener really gets their meaning.
“I was going to take my mother to see a Pantomime for Christmas, but I think she’d prefer a reindeer jumper!”
Learning when to use the “schwa” correctly can help spoken communication sound more natural and warm.
- Similarly, connected speech is the way native speakers flow words into one another causing final letters at the beginning and ends of words to be less sharp and the overall effect is of flowing melodic language. It’s this kind of natural speech that accounts for the musicality of English. When words are put together as a phrase they are often spoken in a slightly different way, with a rhythm and flow all of their own.
For example, ‘an inspirational idea’ could be said as three distinct words, but with connected speech would sound more like: aninspirationalidea.
The words would flow together which makes it more like the speaker is sharing an idea, than individual words.
Slow down to inject emotion and time into speech
Emotions sit within vowel sounds, so by taking your time over your words and really engaging with the vowels of the words, you will build a more emotional connection with your audience. We think about vowels as being the souls of the words, so, particularly when a word is important, try and put some feeling into it. It works: Grammy-award-winning singer Michael Bublé talks about how he sings into his vowels to make his music more emotive - and he seems to be doing pretty well!
These techniques will have the knock on effect of making you sound more connected to what you are saying, and also slowing you down in all the right places - so you are more interesting to listen to and speaking at a pace that keeps your listener with you. Your audience will have more time to process what they are hearing, creating better understanding and ultimately a better connection.
Don’t be disheartened
This may seem like a lot to take in but if you start slowly and concentrate on the bits you feel affect you the most, you’ll soon notice new habits are being formed without you even having to think about them.
It’s important to remember, accents are wonderful, they are an integral part of your identity, and a celebrated part of the melting pot that is Britain. And there are plenty of genuine positives, or one, you have your very own ice-breaker - chatting about where you’re from is a simple way to start building a relationship with someone.
They key thing is to make sure that your accent or way of speaking doesn’t get in the way of your wellbeing, relationships, job satisfaction and goals in life. Be assured that there are techniques, tweaks and plenty of support available to help you to gain confidence in your communication skills should you need them.
If you feel your confidence is suffering or your accent is holding you back, we can help you find a way to reduce those challenges.