This article is based on excerpts from a presentation made by Heather Chetwynd at the ING Cafe in downtown Toronto in September 2012. Please watch out for more upcoming posts based on the variety of topics that were covered at that event.
There are many elements that affect how we perceive what someone says. It may be a different accent, the intonation, general mumbling and poor enunciation, how a word or phrase is used, some preset idea I might have which affects how I listen to you, etc.
FACTORS WHICH INFLUENCE CLARITY
Let’s look at accent; you might be making a consonant sound differently, such as how Spanish speakers combine the B and V, or Indians combine W and V. You might have a particular consonant that dominates – for many it’s a vibrating R, or perhaps a Z instead of TH. Your vowels might be a little different and perhaps one sounds very similar to another to our Canadian ears. For example, SEAT, SIT, SET, SAT – all have just slight variations which native-born Canadians pick up on quickly. Maybe you’re stressing the wrong syllable, or not stressing the right words. It may be that you don’t use intonation the way we do or your phrasing is incorrect or very weak. So if you have 2 or 3 things happening in one sentence and you’re speaking fast, it can be difficult to understand or else the listener needs to listen really hard to decipher what you are saying. And if you speak quickly, the listener has less time to process. So I would say the very first thing anyone can do to help improve clarity is to slow down.
Many people think they speak clearly and don’t understand why people are always asking them to repeat themselves. Maybe they have spoken English most of their lives, even all of their lives. But we can consider different accents as different forms of music influenced largely by intonation, phrasing and speed (which in music is called melody and timing.) You may ask; “Why would I change my accent? That’s the way I speak and everyone has always understood me before.” But actually, even if someone comes from, for example, Northern Scotland or the deep south in the States, sometimes Canadians don’t understand them. For example: Newfoundlanders (those living in Newfoundland, Canada’s eastern-most province) – I often do not understand the older ones and they’re Canadian and native speakers of English. So it’s very much related to different rhythms and expectations. The fact remains that your speech is influenced by your environment and we attune our ears to what we commonly hear.
CHANGING HOW WE SPEAK
Changing pronunciation is not easy. It is physical skill requiring patient practice and endless repetition to re-train our tongue and mouth movements. It is also deeply rooted in our sense of identity and how we portray ourselves to the world around us. If I started speaking to you with an English accent, I would feel silly probably, and someone attempting to modify their accent may have that same feeling. So there can be certain resistance despite really wanting to speak more clearly. You’re putting your tongue in a different place and your mouth is moving in a different way and its like exercise – you have to do the exercise to train yourself. You can’t be thinking a lot when you’re speaking about how you’re pronouncing because then you can’t really express yourself. It has to become automatic and this is a gradual process. Changing how you speak is a matter of re-educating yourself and, like exercise, you may have to keep going at the risk of slipping back to your old patterns, especially if you live in your own language at home, and a lot of people do.
HOW ATTITUDES MAY AFFECT COMPREHENSION
In Canada, many people are not used to hearing a variety of accents, especially in less urban environments. Even in Toronto, many native speakers mix almost entirely with other native speakers and, therefore, do not become familiar with other accents. And native-born English-speaking Canadians are not known for speaking other languages. So our ears are often not attuned to different accents and we may not have much tolerance or comprehension regarding the issue. Immigrants often feel Canadians don’t try very hard; that we are impatient and don’t take time to understand. At times this is true and it may be based on a stereotype or a judgment we have learned. So this can be very frustrating for all involved, but especially the immigrant who often feels in a more vulnerable position.
“One time I went to a resort in Orangeville (Ontario, Canada.) I was the only one from another town. Everybody there was white and everybody was looking at me in the restaurant saying; “This guy is not from our town.” They didn’t come to me and tell me, but I could see it. Everybody was staring at me. What I’m saying is, it depends on where you are in the city or province… Things are changing now; here in downtown Toronto, you don’t really see it much because all of us are immigrants. We’re learning how to live with each other.” Presentation participant, fall 2012
My belief is, first, that there are clearly people who are heavily influenced by stereotypes. Also, many people, since they have never learned another language, have little comprehension of the issues involved. So they can be impatient and disrespectful. On the other hand, many immigrants do not understand why people have difficulties understanding them. In addition, they may have already decided that Canadians tend to be impatient and intolerant of different accents. So they immediately jump to a negative interpretation of the difficulty.
I do believe a certain racism exists, based on stereotypes, that some people feel and express. But I don’t think it’s a good thing to think about or focus on. Nor do I think it’s the rule. And besides, you can’t depend on changing others but you can change yourself. So you have to choose where to put your energy and, if you often experience confusion about your communication, it may mean there is some work to do.
I’m going to give you another story that happened to me which may illustrate this predisposition to stereotypical thinking, this time from an immigrant. It also reflects a lack of self-awareness.
THE DANGER OF AN US-THEM MENTALITY
A woman came to meet with me, wanting a pronunciation assessment. She told me that she thought her pronunciation wasn’t good because people kept interrupting her. That was the main reason – people interrupted her regularly and she believed it was because they weren’t really understanding her. We began by chatting for a bit. Generally I always start the assessment out with small talk and then I do the actual assessment, all of which takes about an hour. We talked and she talked and she talked and she talked and it was almost an hour. So I began to cut her off because I had to do the assessment and she immediately went quiet. I asked what had happened and she said nothing. And I said; “No, no, something happened because you were talking a lot and now you’re not talking at all.” But she continued to deny there was anything wrong. I kept encouraging her and finally she said; “You people are always cutting us off.”
This comment was, what we call, a “dead giveaway” as to her point of view and predisposition. She was portraying an us-them mentality. But people were actually cutting her off because she never stopped talking and didn’t give space for others to participate. Now, this is an extreme case and she clearly had some issues. But it illustrates to me how taking this position can be easier than looking at ourselves. And I believe an us-them mentality creates a limitation and indicates a lack of taking responsibility for yourself.
It’s easy for an immigrant to feel insecure about the language because there are often so many gaps in their knowledge. And when people look at them in a certain way or do something which seems rude or impatient, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the other person is prejudiced in some way. And it’s also easy to judge them in the same way.
Sometimes I’ll ask somebody; “Where are you from?” It’s because I’m interested and because I do accent coaching and I’m listening to their accent. Well often people get upset – they see it as a criticism, that they stand out as an immigrant. I met a Polish woman and asked her where she was from. She answered “Europe” but that was obvious to me. After I asked where in Europe, she finally said Poland. She hadn’t wanted to say it because of all the Polish jokes; she felt insecure. So I think it’s best just to be really open and if people are rude to you, take the mental position that there might be a slight misunderstanding and they are probably not being rude or, if you really do believe they are rude, think that but leave it as their problem. I suggest trying to keep an open and non-judgmental mind which will help you to be better disposed to learning and solving communication problems.