Sometimes I hear a critique of accent modification – a bit of a backlash. There are those who argue that making any changes to someone’s accent is a slight, even an insult – that this is just cultural bias and it’s up to the listener to pay attention. Well that can be true, if the accent is distinctive but the content is fully intelligible.
But let’s inject some balance into the conversation.
The simple fact is that it can be tiring enough just trying to focus on listening to the content without the added burden of trying to decipher the sounds. In the time it takes to figure out what someone has just said, we get behind on what they’re saying. Yes, listeners should make an effort to understand. Absolutely. And, you know what? I think, for the most part, they do. However, communicating effectively is a shared responsibility.
The speaker has an advantage. They already know what information they want to communicate. The listener is left to interpret the meaning of the speaker’s words.
This isn’t just true of speakers of ESL or English as a Lingua Franca. We all have accents. Every single one of us. So no one is talking about erasing accents. All we would be doing is replacing one accent with another. Accents in themselves are a beautiful expression of who we are.
But even if a native English speaker has an accent that’s challenging in a context outside of their own surroundings, it can be problematic.
I remember being on the phone with a tech support rep from Georgia, Alabama (in the U.S.), where it took about 15 minutes for me to understand what he was asking. There was no body language to make it easier. There were no visual cues. I thought his accent was wonderful. I loved it. But I had a technical problem that needed to be fixed and I was getting frustrated. He wasn’t getting the information he needed to do the work because I was having so much difficulty understand him. It wasn’t about cultural bias. It was about time and efficiency.
In fact, I happened to have a conversation with a Canadian the other day who laughingly told me he had acted as the interpreter on a business telephone meeting between two native English-speaking Americans who couldn’t understand each other’s accent: one was from Georgia, the other from Brooklyn, New York. It was a good thing this person had been available to help out. He understood the challenge completely because he had lived in Georgia for a time and had had a girlfriend from Brooklyn.
So let’s not jump to the conclusion that it’s always about cultural bias. It’s not.
As much as we’d like to think it’s just a matter of listener effort, I would argue that speakers have a responsibility to try to communicate as clearly as possible, to draw in and guide the listener to facilitate comprehension. That doesn’t negate the responsibility of the listener.
Both parties have a role to play in successful communication, to be sure. But we only have control over one of them –– ourselves. That’s all.
Your thoughts are always welcome.
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