It was George Bernard Shaw in Pygmalion, who first a argued that a standard English dialect should be taught to all Englishmen in order to unify the culture and end social prejudice based on tell-tale dialects.
Today, in the emerging diversity of the U.S. work culture, employees for whom English is a second language often experience prejudice because of their foreign accent. Jobs and promotions can be denied because of a heavy accent, and are. A 1990 Supreme Court ruling deemed that discrimination due to accent did not violate the 1964 Civil Rights act.
Realistically, it is vital that employees communicate easily and effectively. It can be very disconcerting for native born Americans to try to get important information concerning banking issues, safety, directions, or telephone messages, if it’s difficult to understand the other party. Such unproductive communications result in prejudice. It’s easy in frustration to decide that the accented employee is not interested in adapting to the host culture, are unqualified for their job, or “just plain stupid.” Fortunately and truthfully, an accent only reflects incomplete learning and nothing integral to an individual’s intelligence.
Even within the United States among natives (as was true in Shaw’s England), people from different regions can have problems understanding each others’ regional accents. Imagine someone from rural Brooklyn talking with someone from rural Alabama Yet everyone seems to easily understand a “Standard American Dialect.”
A standard American dialect is most easily defined as “media speech.” It’s the accent most schooled newscasters, actors, and media personalities adopt. It’s a standard of pronunciation recorded by scholars, then studied and taught as the correct form of American speech. Once a standard American dialect is learned, it relieves the speaker of being a target for dialect prejudice and places him in the mainstream of understandability.
The primary goal of any initial accent improvement program for the workplace is increased UNDERSTANDABILITY. Most foreign-born Americans speak English through the physical patterns of their original language. Many learned English from others with heavy “foreign” accents. You see, each language has its own set of physical patterns of vocal production that create its unique quality of sound. For instance, in the standard American dialect we have a majority of sounds that are “frontal” — produced with a flatter tongue and more open mouth. European dialects generally use “rounder” sounds, that are placed further back, and as a result — sometimes more nasal. Asian dialects are largely focused at the back of the tongue. Pronouncing English through foreign physicality changes the pronunciation, and often the meaning. For example the word “pat,” the flat “a” sound being unusual to the European dialects will often be pronounced “pot.” In receiving instructions for a recipe from an accented person, the difference between a pat of butter and a pot of butter could be disastrous.
To achieve clear American sounds a student needs to do the following:
- Become aware of the specific physical differences in producing the sounds of their original language and those of the Standard American Dialect.
- Learn and practice physical vocal exercises to loosen habitual patterns created by the original language, and create the stretch needed to reach the physical patterns of the Standard American Dialect.
- Identify their individual sound substitutions (like the pat/pot example) and work to correct them.
- Experience a good model of pronunciation (a teacher) and have a written resource of pronunciation (a pronouncing dictionary and familiarity with the International Phonetic Alphabet).
Using these resources clearer speech and increased effectiveness in communication can result in a matter of weeks. The benefits to the employee include the alleviation of unnecessary dialect prejudice and more promotability. The benefits to the employer are productive communications and increased staff morale.
Some purists argue that we lose character when we lose our original dialect. As the U.S. grows into high acceptance of its increasing cultural diversity, speaking English with the flavor of one’s original language may become a respected, even stylish way to maintain cultural identity. However, achieving consistent UNDERSTANDABILITY is crucial to communication and job effectiveness.
With basic classes in accent improvement, any employee who is committed to doing so can increase understandability. Any employee with the need and drive can, with consistent effort, continue to learn to speak with the Standard American Dialect as clearly as a media professional, for greater success in the workplace.