Thursday, October 6, 2011

"How do you want me to sound?" Should speakers alter their accents?

A few years ago, I was working with a senior scientist--one who'd had a long and illustrious career. He was delighted to have been asked to speak at his alma mater, to the 500 science majors there, and he asked my help in preparing for the big address. We talked about how to be relevant to a diverse group of young science students, what examples and stories he might use, a prop that might get the audience buzzing. And then he asked, "How do you want me to sound?"

At first, I didn't understand, and asked him to explain what he meant. That's when he told me that, as the child of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, his accent had always been noticeable--and that he was put through "elocution" courses in his youth. "What was the goal of those?" I asked. "They wanted you to sound like a white kid from Ohio," he said.

I told him he should just sound like himself, then took that speech a step further. He was going to speak to a melting pot of students from many countries, many of them immigrants of the modern day. One of his themes was how his profession was embracing diversity, so we decided he'd tell the story of those elocution lessons and their unachieveable goal. (The students were incredulous, and amused.)

But accents can hurt you when you're speaking in English in the U.S., research shows. (It's one of three ways your language shapes your speaking.) And I thought of my scientist client when I read this report on a civil rights complaint against Arizona's schools for having "accent police" who monitored teachers who speak English with an accent. "How do you want me to sound?" is a highly charged question, and one that creates a layer of anxiety for speakers whose first language is not English.

This issue mixes politics, insecurity and the things that make us different. I'm biased in favor of accents, as the child of a mother for whom French was her first language--and whose accent is still evident after many decades of living in the U.S. I'm curious about readers of The Eloquent Woman, who hail from many nations: What do you experience if you speak in accented English?  Share your thoughts in the comments, anonymously or not. Do you feel your accent is a liability or an asset?

Clip to Evernote
Use the Evernote clip button, above, to save this post in an Evernote notebook or start an Evernote account.(If it doesn't work for you, try using a 'modern' browser, like Chrome or Firefox.) Go here to subscribe to Step Up Your Speaking, my free email newsletter that looks at a different speaking topic in depth each month...then become a fan of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook and join the conversation with thousands of other women (and men) about public speaking skills and confidence.