Breaking the "How You Sound" Barrier
Eugene O'Reilly, longtime OPEN EXCHANGE lister, offers speech and voice training in our Speech category.
The challenges test pilot Chuck Yeager faced in 1947 to break the speed of sound barrier in an airplane were minor compared to breaking the "how you sound" barrier for professionals with difficult to understand accented speech in the workplace.
The "how you sound" barrier exists in every language group around the world. In every country, people with the more appealing ways of communicating usually have the power and the popularity. Every four years in America there is an "Olympics" of "how you sound" in the form of presidential debates.
Wherever we go in the world, we will be judged not only by the words we say but how clearly they are said and with what kind of voice. There appears to be truth in the lyrics of the old song (slightly modified), "It's not what you say. It's the way that you say it. That's what gets results."
Americans living abroad who speak foreign languages are usually immediately recognized for their American accented speech. The reason for this is the same for all language groups in the world. It is primarily because most education systems do not teach children a second language to be used in conversation. It is mostly for reading, writing, rote recitation and saying memorized sentences. As soon as most kids get out on the playground, they begin speaking their native language again.
A worse situation for learning a second language exists. Around the world, but especially in America , children speak their native language of English for at least 12 years before they study a foreign language. By that time all of the idiomatic expressions, speech sounds, grammar and vocabulary they will use for the rest of their lives are memorized and set. For those of you who have finished high school; think about your foreign language classes. It is probable that your classmates simply wanted to pass the test, get a decent grade and then forget about the foreign language.
Because this happens in many places in the world, being able to speak English becomes a crucial factor when moving to America as an adult. Many immigrants take ESL courses to learn "survival" English in order to improve their chances of communicating well in America . Although those courses are very thorough, they usually don't show the person how to override the speech patterns of their native language which become mixed into their speaking of English. Numerous people with accented speech are disappointed when they realize they are not being understood even though they know what they want to say and what words to say.
Many people from other countries can get along just fine in America if they have a job which does not require them to speak English. In San Francisco , there are neighborhoods where foreign languages are spoken almost exclusively by most of the people who live there. In those places, it is very easy for people who speak that language to go about their business in every way and get along very well without ever speaking English.
In the professional work environment, it is another matter. Most successful American businesses prefer their employees to speak English. There may be departments where employees are hired to speak foreign languages in order for the company to do business. Foreign-language fluency and the ability to translate are great skills for ensuring job security in that situation.
For those required to speak English only, easy to understand speech and a pleasant voice can be very valuable. Most employee evaluations include communication skills as an area being rated. A difficult to understand accent or dialect will be noticed and recorded in an employee evaluation.
There are ways to break the "how you sound" barrier. Learning to change accented speech, requires an awareness of exactly what aspects of the accented speech are causing the difficulties for the listener. After the person becomes aware of specific sounds to be changed, it is in their best interest to go through a period of drill and repetition until the old speech pattern is "forgotten" and the new speech pattern is remembered.
Changing an accent is similar to adjusting the playing of a sport. For example, if your golf or baseball bat swing was getting poor results, a coach would suggest how you might change your posture in order to play better. If you had been swinging incorrectly for a long time, it will take repetition and practice of the new postures in order to override and forget the incorrect way of playing the sport. The same goes for changing accented speech. Speech is the most complex behavior on earth, so the challenges are even greater than altering body postures for a sport. Changing an established speech pattern requires determination, a time commitment and above all a willingness to change.
With the guidance of a Speech-Language Pathologist specializing in accent refinement and voice enhancement, the goal of breaking the "how you sound barrier" can be reached rapidly.
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