CBC with Mary Houle 23 December 2019
“Can you repeat that, please?”
It’s a question Joan Jiang gets regularly.
Jiang is from China and learned English as a second language. Though she tries not to take it to heart, she admits that after 20 years in Canada, it sometimes gets to her.
“It really shakes my confidence,” she said.
Jiang sees her lingering accent as an obstacle, particularly in the workplace. She remembers one job interview in particular. Her resumé had impressed, but she could tell the interviewer was concerned by her pronunciation. She didn’t get the job.
“After that, I thought I needed to improve,” she said. “I don’t want my skill to be wasted because my language [is] blocking me.”
Last year, Jiang decided to enrol in accent training classes.
Also called accent reduction or modification, the programs are available across Canada, and promise to “lessen the negative effects of an accent” and help students “achieve a more neutral or ‘Canadian’ accent.”
In Ottawa, speech pathologist Mary Houle gets a couple of inquiries a week for what she calls “accent clarity training.”
Rather than focus on eliminating a student’s accent, Houle says her goal is to help them speak more confidently.
“There are lots of parts of speech that get in the way of clear communication, and accent is only one of them,” she said.
At Jiang’s most recent session with Houle, they focused on the tone of her voice, and how to correctly pronounce the letter R in words like “across.”
Software developer Nalin Pinnagoda is another one of Houle’s students. After struggling to sell his idea for a new management app, he’s hoping the sessions will help him nail the perfect pitch to win over potential investors.
“The first day when I was pitching … the comprehension was not very good. So I wanted to polish up my language skills a little more,” he said.
Pinnagoda came to Canada in 2009 from Sri Lanka and started his own company last year. He says it’s getting easier to communicate in everyday situations, like when ordering a coffee, but now he wants to up his skills.
“I’m living away from my home so I have to respect the culture of this country. I think it’s part of living here,” he said.
Houle is clear that while accent training can help people deliver their message more clearly, losing their accent completely isn’t a realistic goal for students.
Instead, Houle, who’s been teaching accent clarity for over two decades, focuses on the correct pronunciation of consonants and vowels, and putting the right emphasis on key words.
“Let’s get you ready to say it in a way that tells your employer that you’re a competent and good communicator — and that all can be true with an accent.”
Whose burden is it anyway?
But some wonder whether the onus to change should be on the listener rather than the speaker.
Tracey Derwing, a linguistics professor at Simon Fraser University who has studied second-language accents, agrees language training can help people speak more clearly. But her research also shows that how well the speaker is understood depends on the person listening. In fact, some listeners are so highly attuned to accents that they make a decision about whether they’ll understand the speaker by the time they’ve uttered their first syllable.
Derwing believes listeners need to train themselves to be more tolerant.
“It should be that the speaker tries to speak as clearly as possible and the listener makes an effort to understand,” she said.
“Try putting yourself in that person’s shoes,” Derwing suggested. “Make an effort to open up to them and help them a little bit.”
Five training sessions and around $400 later, Jiang feels the lessons were worth it.
Her pronunciation has improved, and so has her confidence. She’s starting a new job in project management with the federal government, and is hopeful that this time, her accent won’t be the focus.
“Once you get in to do that work, I think what you do becomes more important than how much accent you have,” she said.
Mary Houle is a speech pathologist in Ottawa.