Mark Your Accent

The inexorable march of globalization in business has created a vast landscape of diverse workforces of diverse origins, all working together but speaking in a Babel of tongues. In their desire to communicate effectively, transplanted workers seek to learn the language of their adopted homes in classes and books, from computers, and online programs. These expatriates also seek to speak their newly acquired language more clearly, which has created a surge in a veteran niche industry called “Accent Reduction.”

In recognition of National Eliza Doolittle Day—based on the story of how a speech professor improves the life a flower girl by teaching her to speak properly—this blog will show you how to improve your spoken communication by making your accent more intelligible.

The flower girl in the story, Eliza Doolittle, was originally created by George Bernard Shaw in his play, “Pygmalion,” which was then made into the world-famous musical, “My Fair Lady.” The source for Pygmalion was Greek mythology. In that tale, Pygmalion, a Roman sculptor, worked for years to carve a stone statue of his ideal woman. Pygmalion became so enamored of the statue that he prayed for the Gods to bring her to life and, magically, they did.

The operative word in myths is “magically.” The operative word in reality is, to quote Eliza Doolittle, “not bloody likely.” “Reduction” is a more attainable goal than the elimination that Eliza achieved, but elimination is nearly impossible in the nonfiction world for one simple reason: Speaking is a habit practiced since infancy, and habits of that duration are extremely difficult to break.

Berlitz, the venerable international language school, offers a model of how to overcome long held habits. The company has long offered a program called Total Immersion, which involves organized travel to a destination where the desired language is spoken—to Mexico for Spanish or to France for French. Once there, the students, shepherded by Berlitz instructors, spend one to three weeks living as natives, speaking only the target language.

The operative word in learning languages, therefore, is “listen.” If that process sounds familiar, it should, for it is how all humans learn to speak languages as children. Children listen to their parents and then speak. Period. No books, no lists, no memorization, no conjugation. The primary learning tools are the ears and the mouth.

If you want to reduce your accent, develop your own form of immersion. Listen to the new language on the radio, on television, or on podcasts. Hear the words and imitate the sounds. Open your mind and your ears to the new language you encounter in your daily life and repeat what you hear. Before long, your new language will sound more like that of a native rather than filtered through the pronunciation pattern of your original language. Your accent will never vanish, but you will sound clearer.

Repetition plus imitation equals Verbalization, a rehearsal technique of repeating your content aloud in practice sessions. Just as Verbalization improves the fluidity of your presentation, it can also improve the clarity of your speech.

Listen and speak. Hear the words and imitate the sounds—and you can become a fair lady or gentleman.

This blog is based on an excerpt from my book Winning Strategies for Power Presentations published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fire—available on Amazon and other retailers.