Turning Accents Into Assets

I belong to a fabulous Toastmasters club in central Florida. A few years ago, a club member (a born and bred Southerner) openly criticized the accent of a native New Englander when evaluating this fellow member’s speech. “A Southern boy like me can’t hope to understand what you’re saying,” he lamented. “If you want to improve your speaking skills, you’d better get rid of that accent!”

This thorny character was, of course, unaware that his own honey-dripping Southern drawl might be difficult for some members to decipher as well.

Should Toastmasters be expected to conform to a certain standard accent when delivering a speech? Or is it a benefit to the club to celebrate regional or foreign accents?

There’s a lot to be said for allowing a speaker to remain unique and passionate. Peter Strevens of the academic journal English Today says, “It has long been recognized that non-standard dialects can embrace some kinds of activity with a force and feeling which may be lacking in standard forms and usages.” Perhaps, then, there is value in allowing a speaker to be natural when expressing himself, even if this represents a departure from the accepted “standard” delivery.

One of the greatest benefits of being a Toastmaster is the exposure to all kinds of people. We learn as much from each other as we do from our own participation. If we attempt to “normalize” a person’s speaking style, eliminating idiosyncrasies in pronunciation, accent, language usage and word choice, we run the risk of cheating ourselves out of some of the most valuable and enjoyable experiences available to us as Toastmasters members.

For instance, my club boasts a native-born British member. After many years of living in the United States, her accent is still very prevalent, and it’s a pleasure to listen to her lilting voice. She has an amazing ability to “turn a phrase,” and fellow club members marvel at her choice of words, rejoicing in idioms and expressions that Americans would seldom employ in common parlance.

Adding diversity and depth
Multilingual members can also bring a rich diversity of ideas to the speaking arena. Although heavy accents can at times be challenging to understand, a person who speaks more than one language has learned the valuable skill of processing their thoughts in more than one way. Anyone fortunate enough to be familiar with multiple languages knows this skill adds depth and variety to sentence structure, word choice and the verbalization of concepts.

Regionally diverse club members can create a goldmine for comedy and learning. When a variety of dialects and colloquialisms collide, the effects are often fun and fill meetings with natural humor. In addition, it’s always exciting to listen to a speech delivered by a Toastmaster from an unfamiliar part of the world. We learn new things and discover vernacular and phrases we haven’t heard before.

Of course, we can’t enjoy a speaker if we can’t understand her, and heavy accents can make heavy weather of an otherwise excellent speech. Whether your “accent challenged” speakers hail from around the globe or around the corner, there are ways to help them get their point across yet still reap the benefits of their verbal variety and unique impact. On the Web site www.accurateenglish.com, Lisa Mojsin lists 10 tips for speakers trying to overcome a strong accent or speak in a new language:

  • Observe the mouth movements of native speakers and try to imitate them.
  • Until you learn the correct intonation and rhythm of the language, slow down your speech.
  • Listen to the “music” of the language.
  • Use your dictionary.
  • Make a list of frequently used words that are difficult for you to pronounce and ask a native speaker to pronounce them for you.
  • Buy books on tape.
  • Pronounce the ending of each word.
  • Read aloud in the language for 15 to 20 minutes each day.
  • Record your own voice and listen for pronunciation mistakes.
  • Be patient.

For detailed information and a discussion regarding these tips, visit www.accurateenglish.com.

Although the desire to be understood is paramount in our global society, it is important to encourage, embrace and appreciate speakers with varying levels of native language proficency. Here are a few tips to remember when welcoming these members to your club:

  • If a speaker has a heavy accent, ask her to slow down her delivery, making it easier for listeners to understand. Encourage her to practice her speech on native speakers before giving a presentation.
  • Don’t allow the speaker to assume that everyone automatically understands her. Be aware of audience reaction and take the time to ensure club members understand what the speaker has said.
  • When a speaker uses regional phrases or words, the evaluator should welcome their usage, but encourage the speaker to explain their meaning. Don’t be afraid to ask the speaker to repeat or use other terms to enlighten the audience.
  • As a rule, the meeting grammarian should point out unusual language usage in a speech. By remarking on unique usages, the grammarian can ensure group understanding and initiate valuable discussion on diverse forms of speech.
  • Encourage club members to ask questions regarding a particular word, phrase, accent or choice of delivery, thereby maximizing the educational benefits for the audience and eliminating confusion. This can work for a native-English speaker asking about a nonstandard or foreign word or an English-language learner asking for the standard pronunciation of an English word. It can also work for people who speak the same language but with varying dialects. Establishing a forum free from criticism opens the door to understanding.

In short, listening to people who speak differently from you is good for you! Beyond the obvious benefits of learning new words, phrases and ideas from your members, you will gain the additional benefit of increased understanding across regional, national and international boundaries. You may even forge relationships that will bring lasting and positive change to you, your club and your community. Welcome that which is unfamiliar, and grow in ways you cannot yet fathom.

Sher Hooker, CC, CL, is vice president education of the BoCC Toastmasters in Bartow, Florida. She is an Employee Development Specialist for the Polk County Board of Commissioners in Bartow. She can be reached at sphooker@msn.com.