- Diversity

Foreign Accents – Problem in a Diverse Workplace?

Corporate success today requires a diverse body of talent to implement new ideas, views, and perspectives. The client base has become multicultural and the need for effective communication demands diversity. In the past White males made up more than 60% of the American workforce. A steady growth pattern created a shortage of qualified personnel resulting in today’s multinational workforce and an alteration of the image of the typical American worker.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Report “Futurework:” Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century states, “By 2050, the U.S. population is expected to increase by 50 percent and minority groups will make up nearly half of the population. Immigration will account for almost two-thirds of the nation’s population growth. The population of older Americans is expected to more than double. One quarter of all Americans will be of Hispanic origin. Almost one in ten Americans will be of Asian or Pacific Islander descent. And more women and people with disabilities will be on the job. Obviously clear communication is a necessity. However, in today’s workplace communication is lacking due to much of the international workforce’s accents.

R. Roosevelt Thomas, author of “Beyond Race and Gender” states that managing diversity is “a comprehensive managerial process for developing an environment that works for all employees”. However, that compatible environment still does not exist in work areas. Some American co-workers have a very bad attitude and a severe lack of patience when it comes to conversing on any level with those who speak with a heavy accent. Their attitude is “Why can’t they just go somewhere and learn English”. The truth of the matter is they have gone somewhere and learned English and it is not unusual to see statistics showing that oftentimes the non-native speaker scores higher on the standard grammar exam than the native speaker of English. Therefore, “learning” English is not always the problem, but speaking is.

The second language learner (including Americans acquiring a foreign language) speaks the acquired language in the same manner as the native language is spoken, therefore creating an “accent”. The rhythm, stress, intonation, and voice projection of the native language carries over to the second or acquired language and when spoken, it causes a number of distortions in word formations, pronunciation, etc.

Insensitive American co-workers have stated, “Why can’t they simply hear and repeat like our children do?” If simply hearing and speaking were the only requirement for language acquisition, there would be no communications problems anywhere in the world. There is nothing simple about language acquisition. In fact, it is a very complicated business. In addition to linguistic features, there are other factors contributed to speaking with a foreign accent. (On the Nature of Foreign Accents, Daniel P. Dato, Ph.D, CCC)

Example (1) physical factors- to speak a single sound involves using an estimate of 100 different muscles in the throat, larynx, mouth, lips, tongue, and breathing mechanism. We do much of this involuntarily. Imagine trying consciously to control something that complex.

Example (2) cognitive factors (mental activity involved in problem solving.) One has to consider perception, memory, formulating ideas and processing language. Children acquire language easier by using all sense modalities and acquiring new knowledge. The adult acquires language generally in an artificial classroom setting where neuronal activities are limited and his sensory associations are restricted. He/she has no meaningful experience with the new language 2) does not live these experiences, but instead analyzes them 3) ends up over-intellectualizing the language and therefore limiting its natural flow. In addition to the cognitive factors, there are emotional factors involved. These can be fear, humiliation, and inhibitions. These combined cause further, ineffective communication.

Example (3) socio-cultural factors When a second language is learned, one has to also learn a second culture. The learner has to be able to interact with, exchange views, accept new ideas, risk mistakes and become assimilated in a new and strange environment. If the learner views the new culture with a negative stereotype, learning is inhibited. Additionally, there are pressures from the natives of the culture to expect language mastery to be a sign of intelligence, good faith and a willingness to communicate. How many times have people foreign to a country been treated by the natives of that country as though they were stupid or hard of hearing because they could not communicate clearly? There is also pressure from the learner’s ethnic group who feels that it is disloyal to their native culture to learn the target language and culture of another country.

When adapting to a new culture self-identity, among many things is disrupted. Underlying cultural differences often cause a state of cultural shock, which can create physical or mental illness. The second language learner living in another culture loses all commonly perceived and understood symbols and signs of social communion.

Many native speakers of English do not realize all of the complexities involved in the non-native speaker’s acquisition of English.

There is a tendency to be insensitive towards those with an accent and some are blissfully living in the ignorance of thinking that they (Americans) do not have an accent. Nothing could be further from the truth. People who have not studied English in America have learned British English (a very different sounding English than that spoken in the U.S.) After arriving stateside, the non-native speaker of English is confronted with an unfamiliar American accent and the frustration of having to learn a new way of speaking and listening.

Native American speakers articulate using the schwa (reduced vowel sound), contractions (blending two words to make one [can’t, don’t, etc]), and reduced phrases ([gonna, want to, etc.]Vowel Dimensions, Howard B. Woods). Now, imagine the confusion when the non-native speaker hears, “Jeetjet?” when they were expecting to hear “Did you eat yet?” Therefore, the rhetorical question, “Why don’t they go somewhere and learn English” from the non-native speaker’s perspective can also apply to the native speaker of English.

The responsibility of communication is placed squarely on the shoulders of the non-native speaker of English. If there is to be an environment that works for all employees” then half of the responsibility to communicate rests on the shoulders of the American. In fairness and common sense, some well-placed sensitivity and listening workshops should be a mandatory part of all American employee training.

In reality, diversity is the future and growth and success depends upon the ability to communicate with clients worldwide. Qualified personnel is no longer White male, American only; therefore training non-native speakers to sound more like the American is just not going to be enough. The future American is going to have to tolerate, assimilate, and re-learn to communicate.