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Putting It Out There

September 12, 2010
Mary Jane Copps

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In addition to the words we use, there are other elements that impact our ability to communicate effectively on the telephone. It’s important that we acknowledge them, “put it out there” so to speak.

First, as I was reminded during a workshop I did for ISIS (Immigrant Settlement and Integration Services) this past week, there are accents. They can certainly be barriers to effective communication. The most important thing you can do when an accent causes difficulty is (drum roll please) say so!

Let me give you a visual of what’s happening on the phone when an accent is involved and one (or both) of the parties is having difficulty understanding the words being spoken. Shoulders go up around your ears because you are tense, a tension caused because you don’t understand and you feel foolish for not understanding. While you are trying to decipher a specific word, the conversation marches on and you lose track. This creates frustration, pushes your shoulders even closer to your ears. Soon you stop listening and are only focused on ending the call as quickly as possible.

Sound familiar? I’m sure it does. Accents are difficult for all of us. I like to say that understanding accents demands having “an ear”, like having an ear for music. This is developed through exposure and until you have it, you need to speak up, say that you don’t understand, let your shoulders slide back down to where they belong.

If you are the person with the accent and you know that many people you call struggle, try saying something like “I know that my accent can be difficult to understand. Please don’t hesitate to ask me to repeat myself, or perhaps speak more slowly – whatever works best for you.”

If you are the person struggling to understand an accent, you can say the following: “Sorry, but I don’t have an ear for your accent and I’m having trouble understanding you. Can you please repeat that for me? Can you speak slower?”

Problems arise when we, for lack of a better phrase, keep secrets. By not expressing our communication needs in an open, straightforward way, we destroy any possibility of effectively delivering our message.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you have experiences with accents from which others can learn, I hope you’ll send them along.

Happy phonework!

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1 COMMENT

  1. Deisy says:

    Really interesting thoughts. In my mixed-level classes I draw attention to my pronunciation and try to get them to mimic me, but I often give alternate pronunciations. This seems to be comfortable for everyone.I think that if I were to work one-on-one with a more advanced student and find that they’re anxious about their accent, it may well be helpful to approach accent reduction in terms of learning to imitate ‘American’ accents. You can even show a clip of an actor or youtube-ist switching between accents and encourage the student to consciously choose to ‘put on’ an ‘American’ accent while not trying to banish their natural speech patterns.

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