As a language training company, we get this question constantly: “How do I approach my employee about the fact that everyone has a hard time understanding him/her because of his/her heavy accent?”
In fact, I got a call like this just the other day from a CEO.
“We have two new interns this year, and we would like to hire both of them when they are finished with their internships,” the CEO told me. “They are incredible. But we’re having a hard time understanding one of them. Her work is great, but at meetings, we’re not sure what she’s saying sometimes due to her strong accent.”
Even Fluent Speakers Can Have Hard-to-Understand Accents
This employee is far from alone. With multilingual teams and global relocations on the rise, more employees are being asked to do business in their second language. But even if an employee has achieved fluency in a second language, a strong accent can be still an issue.
I even spoke with a British woman who is having a hard time adjusting her communication now that she works in the U.S. And she is a native English speaker! Europeans typically learn British English, so relocating to New York City, Dallas or anywhere else in the U.S. is a shock to their ears. Mobile, privacy and schedule are just a few of the words pronounced differently in British English vs. American English.
Many global teams also include members from India. Although English is commonly used in higher education and business in India — it’s even been called the “de facto national language” there — some Americans find English spoken by natives of India hard to understand.
An accent has a very real effect on how other team members perceive an employee. According to researchers Kristin J. Van Engen and Jonathan E. Peelle, if you’re listening to someone with an unfamiliar accent, you’ll have trouble understanding and processing what they’re saying. (By the way, that’s true regardless of whether the speaker’s accent is from a foreign country or simply a different region of your own country.)
How to Bring Up Accent Reduction Training
So what can you do as a leader when a valued employee’s strong accent is keeping him from reaching his potential? I totally get that this can be an awkward subject to bring up with a team member, but it’s too important not to talk about. Here’s the game plan that Fluency Corp recommends, complete with a script you can use when talking to the employee.
- Schedule a one-on-one meeting with the employee to discuss his progress with his work. It doesn’t have to be formal. Don’t put this off!
- Here’s your opening line: “We are really impressed with (name a few ways this employee makes a difference and adds value). We think you are a vital part of the team, and we would like to invest in you even further. We want to ensure that you are 100 percent confident as you do this job. Is there anything we can do to support your growth?”
- Listen to the employee’s aspirations and desires around development and training. We’re betting that he’s going to bring up accent reduction training before you even mention it. As many calls as we get from employers about how to approach their team members about accents, we get twice as many calls from employees themselves. They want to know how they can master the local dialect and improve their communication and understanding with co-workers. It’s very likely that your employee has long wanted to pursue training to reduce his accent but hasn’t been sure how to bring it up with you. By initiating this conversation, you’re giving him an opening.
- What if the topic of accent reduction doesn’t come up right away? You can gently raise the subject by saying something like this: “How is communication going with your co-workers? We know working in a new country is challenging, and the local accent here is different from what you’re used to, so is there anything we can do to help you?”
- Once you and the employee agree on the need for accent reduction, offer language training: “Would you be interested in some private, one-on-one accent lessons to help you better understand our crazy dialect? We can enroll you in corporate English lessons that focus on developing and understanding the U.S. accent and covering the phrases you use in your daily work interactions.”
3 Ways To Improve Your Heavy Accent
Do you have an employee who constantly has to repeat themselves in order to be understood? Remind them that the goal is not to erase all evidence of their accent, it’s simply to help them get their message across. There are simple ways to help them speak clearly even with a strong accent. Try these:
- Make lists of the words that rhyme or have the same sounds – English has a lot of different spellings for the same sounds: burn, earn, bird, word. Each one has a different spelling, yet all of the sounds are the same. Use Forvo.com to check out a native speaker pronouncing each word if you’re unsure, or ask your English tutor.
- Google ‘English liaisons”. In English we connect words that start with a vowel. For example: I liked it. This is pronounced: I lik-tit.
- Use American Accent Training book to learn about new sounds that form between two letters from different words. For example: T + Y = CH. Don’t you = don-chew. This book will also open up your ears to the true sound of the language, and stop you from reading what you think the word sounds like based on the spelling.
One more thing? It’s okay to take time and be patient. Speak slowly when communicating to colleagues at work, and encourage your employee to keep working on reducing their accent independently and with language training.
Language training that helps your employee reduce a strong accent will have powerful payoffs. If your company relocated this employee to your office, language classes will help him assimilate and decrease the chances that the relocation won’t take. The employee will feel more competent and confident — and, thus, more likely to share his great ideas. (Isn’t that why you hired him in the first place?) You’ll improve collaborations on your team by easing communication. And you’ll be showing your employee that you truly care about his wellbeing and success, which inspires deep loyalty.
Like I said earlier, don’t put off this conversation with your employee. To learn more about how Fluency Corp can help you with accent reduction training, contact us for a free consultation.