Foreign Accents – Problem in a Diverse Workplace?

Today’s corporate success requires a diverse body of talent to implement new ideas, insights, and perspectives. The customer base has become multicultural and the need for effective communication demands diversity. In the past, white men made up more than 60% of the American workforce. A steady growth pattern created a shortage of skilled personnel that resulted in today’s multinational workforce and an altered image of the typical American worker.

The report “Future Work:” Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century from the US Department of Labor states: “By 2050, the US population is expected to increase by 50 percent and Minority groups will make up nearly half the population Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s population growth The population of older Americans is expected to more than double One-fourth of all Americans will be of Hispanic origin Nearly one in ten Americans will be of Asian or Pacific Islander descent And more Women and people with disabilities will be at work Clear communication is obviously a must However, in today’s workplace communication is lacking due to accent of much of the international workforce.

R. Roosevelt Thomas, author of “Beyond Race and Gender,” states that diversity management is “a comprehensive management process for developing an environment that works for all employees.” However, that compatible environment does not yet exist in the workspaces. Some American coworkers have a very bad attitude and a severe lack of patience when it comes to conversing at any level with those who speak with a thick accent. Their attitude is “Why can’t they just go somewhere and learn English?”. The truth of the matter is that they have gone somewhere and learned English and it is not unusual to see statistics showing that non-native speakers often score better on the standard grammar test than native English speakers. So “learning” English is not always the problem, but speaking it 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.” Rhythm, accent, intonation, and voice projection from the native language are transferred to the second or acquired language, and when spoken, it causes a number of distortions in word formation, pronunciation, etc.

Callous American co-workers have said, “Why can’t they just listen and repeat like our children do?” If simply listening and speaking were the only requirement for language acquisition, there would be no communication problems anywhere in the world. There is nothing simple about language acquisition. In fact, it is a very complicated business. In addition to linguistic characteristics, there are other factors that contribute to speaking with a foreign accent. (On the nature of foreign accents, Daniel P. Dato, Ph.D, CCC)

Example (1) physical factors: speaking a single sound involves using an estimate of 100 different muscles in the throat, larynx, mouth, lips, tongue, and breathing mechanism. We do a lot of this unintentionally. Imagine consciously trying to control something so complex.

Example (2) cognitive factors (mental activity involved in problem solving). One has to consider perception, memory, ideation, and language processing. Children acquire language more easily using all the modalities of the senses and acquiring new knowledge. The adult usually acquires language in an artificial classroom environment where neural activities are limited and their sensory associations are restricted. He does not have significant experience with the new language 2) He does not live these experiences, but analyzes them 3) He ends up over-intellectualizing the language and therefore limiting its natural flow. In addition to cognitive factors, there are emotional factors involved. These can be fear, humiliation and inhibitions. These combined cause even more ineffective communication.

Example (3) socio-cultural factors When learning a second language, one has to learn a second culture as well. The learner must be able to interact, exchange points of view, accept new ideas, risk making mistakes and assimilate in a new and strange environment. If the learner views the new culture with a negative stereotype, learning is inhibited. In addition, there are pressures from natives of the culture to expect language proficiency to be a sign of intelligence, good faith, and a willingness to communicate. How many times have foreign people in a country been treated by the natives of that country as if they were stupid or hard of hearing because they couldn’t communicate clearly? There is also pressure from the student’s ethnic group who feel it is unfair to their native culture to learn the target language and culture of another country.

When adapting to a new culture, one’s own identity, among many things, is altered. Underlying cultural differences often cause culture shock, which can create physical or mental illness. The student of a second language living in another culture loses all commonly perceived and understood symbols and signs of social communion.

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

There is a tendency to be callous towards those with an accent and some live blissfully in the dark that they (Americans) do not have an accent. Could not be farther from the truth. People who have not studied English in the United States have learned British English (an English that sounds very different from the one spoken in the US) a new way of speaking and listening.

Native American speakers articulate using schwa (reduced vowel sound), contractions (combining two words to form a [can’t, don’t, etc]), and reduced sentences ([gonna, want to, etc.]Vowel Dimensions, Howard B. Woods). Now, imagine the confusion when the non-native speaker hears, “Jeetjet?” when they expected to hear “Have you eaten yet?” Hence, the rhetorical question, “Why don’t you go somewhere and learn English?” from the perspective of the non-native speaker it can also be applied to the native speaker of English.

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

In reality, diversity is the future, and growth and success depend on the ability to communicate with customers around the world. Qualified personnel are no longer just white male, just American; therefore, training non-native speakers to sound more like American will not be enough. The American future will have to tolerate, assimilate, and relearn how to communicate.

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