More than my accent

By June 19, 2019Uncategorised

Accents are a part of us. We get them once we start learning to speak. The type of accent that we have is largely dictated by the languages that we grow up speaking. As this is directly tied to our backgrounds, accents end up becoming a part of our identity.

Does our accent define us?

Accents vary depending on our backgrounds. Growing up in Kenya, I got used to many accents. The country has 42 tribes that all speak a different language. As children, we used to make fun of people with thick accents who couldn’t properly pronounce words. People from my tribe, for example, run the risk of mixing up ‘l’ and ‘r’ depending on where they were raised because the letter ‘l’ is not in our vocabulary. It’s was never that serious, though, because we can all understand each other. It just sounds odd.

As an adult, I never thought much about my accent or about being misunderstood until I got to Australia and had cases where people couldn’t understand me when I talked.

Accents can form the basis of bias. Australia is a diverse country with people from all over the world living in it. Not many countries can boast of that. People can freely exchange cultures, learn new things and even overcome biases they previously had. It’s an intriguing experience for some who value these interactions. However, sometimes, differing accents can become a language barrier. It can be a pain going to work and not being able to understand workmates, especially if the work to be done is collaborative in nature. I’ve been to work at times and had cases where I talked to people and they didn’t understand me. I’d have to repeat myself, sometimes more than once. Other times, I was the one who could not understand.

Accents are a part of us. We get them once we start learning to speak. The type of accent that we have is largely dictated by the languages that we grow up speaking. As this is directly tied to our backgrounds, accents end up becoming a part of our identity.

Does our accent define us?

Accents vary depending on our backgrounds. Growing up in Kenya, I got used to many accents. The country has 42 tribes that all speak a different language. As children, we used to make fun of people with thick accents who couldn’t properly pronounce words. People from my tribe, for example, run the risk of mixing up ‘l’ and ‘r’ depending on where they were raised because the letter ‘l’ is not in our vocabulary. It’s was never that serious, though, because we can all understand each other. It just sounds odd.

As an adult, I never thought much about my accent or about being misunderstood until I got to Australia and had cases where people couldn’t understand me when I talked.

Accents can form the basis of bias. Australia is a diverse country with people from all over the world living in it. Not many countries can boast of that. People can freely exchange cultures, learn new things and even overcome biases they previously had. It’s an intriguing experience for some who value these interactions. However, sometimes, differing accents can become a language barrier. It can be a pain going to work and not being able to understand workmates, especially if the work to be done is collaborative in nature. I’ve been to work at times and had cases where I talked to people and they didn’t understand me. I’d have to repeat myself, sometimes more than once. Other times, I was the one who could not understand.

Are we missing opportunities for social interaction?

After a while it started to affect my confidence. Having an accent can bring out people’s biases. Beliefs about a person’s level of education, their financial status and even societal views. In a world that is turning into a global village where anyone can live anywhere (Australia is a big example of that) are we comfortable making a large portion of the population feeling inadequate? Of course not. Mostly, the biases are unconscious and don’t harm the subjects. Other times they manifest in the decisions we make about them and could even result in racial prejudice. Sometimes, biases lead to missed social opportunities for interactions and, at times, even professional opportunities. How many times have we been in situations where we wrote people off because of how they speak?

The result of the biases can vary. In some cases, people choose to change their accents (like I tried). It takes a lot of practice and usually leads to a confessed loss of cultural identity. In rare cases, people go back to their home countries where they feel they can fit in. I’ve seen examples of both cases. In the spirit of promoting multiculturalism, it is imperative to check our biases towards foreign communities, particularly those with strong accents. Part of that is looking back at how we treat people with different accents and put steps in place to reduce and overcome language barriers.

Our top 10 tips for bringing out the best in each other:

  • Be patient. If it helps, think about the last time you learnt a new language.
  • Use simple English (it doesn’t mean you can speak loudly or speak in broken English like Irene from Home and Away) avoid jargons as well.
  • Tap into the other senses – use visual prompts and cues to support your communication.
  • Connect on other levels, where appropriate talk about family, hobbies or food. Areas where you can both become comfortable speaking to each other.
  • Make the other person feel comfortable (use whatever is most appropriate for you):
    • Reassure the person to take their time
    • Use humour to acknowledges their uniqueness (only use where appropriate) “Your English is better than my Vietnamese”
    • Point out your personal communication challenges to normalise differences “let me know if I speak too fast”.
  • Engage a translator, If the topic is complex in nature it might make it easier and more comfortable for the individual to participate.
  • Seek clarification and encourage others to seek clarification; be specific with what you need reexplaining.
  • Be authentic in speech. Faking an accent can distort your words an make them harder to understand than originally.
  • Slow down while talking. This helps to deliver words as clearly as possible by enabling listeners to pick out individual words from the conversation.
  • Learn proper pronunciations of words where necessary. This doesn’t require changing an accent. A small difference in pronunciation can have large effects in communication.

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