By Pradip Rodrigues
When Rekha Iyer a well-educated professional from India failed to get promoted as manager despite the experience, she asked for feedback and was told she needed to work on her communication skills. Rekha concedes that her accent may have come in the way of that promotion. South Asians with hard accents working in back offices or at tech jobs rarely find that their accents affect their professional lives, but when management jobs involve interacting with customers and other co-workers over the phone and in person, accents and communication skills cannot be overlooked by hiring managers.
Bonnie Gross is a speech pathologist and President of SpeechScience International Inc. Over the years she has worked with dozens of South Asians who’ve come to her to rid or soften their accents. “In the workplace, managers are reluctant to tell an employee to improve their accent. It doesn’t mean the employee doesn’t know the language. I get calls from companies requesting me to work with a great employee who just cannot be understood by the others,” she says.
Minish Parikh is a senior professional specializing in strategy execution and large change programs at CIBC. “I was working with a subsidiary of the bank in Barbados, my manager wanted me to re-locate to Toronto and suggested I take an accent reduction class as it would be useful. The bank paid for a 7-day intensive accent reduction course with Bonnie Gross. It made a big difference. Earlier I spoke very fast, people asked me to repeat what I said. All that has gone down. I now use the right intonation and speak slower,” he said.
Elizabeth Hanna a Speech-Language Pathologist has noticed much the same thing with her South Asian clients. “They tend to speak too quickly. I often start by asking my clients to slow down. Although they have an accent, almost all of them grew up speaking English, but it’s a dialect, not “North American English”.
According to Elizabeth, accents are beautiful, they speak of the richness of a culture. “But when accents get in the way of effective communication it’s important to try to address that. Intelligibility is the first thing I look at: everyone should be understood,” she said.
While most first-generation South Asians speak good English but with an accent, they get frustrated and indignant when second-generation Canadians have difficulty understanding them.
“Most of my clients feel that their accents are a barrier to advancing in their careers. Sometimes a mentor or manager may have pointed this out to them. Sometimes they have observed others not understanding them. And sometimes, because children learn languages so much better and faster than adults, many recent immigrants come to me because their children have made fun of their accents,” says Elizabeth Hanna.
Dr Kuldip Kullar, who immigrated to Canada 40 years ago was active in politics. “I used to go to Queen’s Park and had to give speeches often. I realized that I would be more effective if I could improve my accent. I used to speak English as if in Punjab. I joined Bonnie Gross’s class and it made such a big difference,” he says.
Because it is politically incorrect to honestly tell a co-worker or an employee that their accent is hard to follow, many managers take the easy way out by not giving them that job or promotion because they lack the “soft skills” or “good communication skills,” communication skills can be broad and quite different from accent reduction.
As the number of South Asian professionals in Canada grows, the number one complaint is not being able to follow them. Accent reduction courses are now being suggested and even paid for by some companies. In more and more cases, individuals are paying for it themselves and find it is a small price to pay. Bonnie Gross talks about one new immigrant from India with a string of degrees and experience behind him who enrolled for a class. “This person suspected that his accent was a reason why his job interviews weren’t going well. Today he is a senior manager at a well-known company. Improving the accent makes a person feel more confident, they feel relieved and better,” she said.
Immigrants from different parts of the world have different ways of pronouncing English words. For example, South Asians have an issue with TH or rolling R’s. Some consonants and vowels are pronounced differently, and many longer words have different stresses than in Canadian English. Speaking too quickly is another issue.
“I take a recording of each client, analyze it. It is important for them to know how they sound- if their pitch is too soft or loud. I tell them which areas to work on. It is all very scientific and customized to each client,” she said. Bonnie works with a very sophisticated computerized speech program.
Minish Parikh now mentors new immigrants at TRIEC, Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council where he feels that immigrants from certain countries need to be made aware of the issue. “ I am fortunate my employer
paid for it, at my income level, I could’ve paid for it myself. But many new immigrants may have other priorities. I have recommended to TRIEC to consider a similar accent reduction program for new immigrants who may feel they could improve their chances in the professional world,” he said.
As Dr Kuldip Kullar says, “Lifelong learning is my aim. There is always room for improvement which is why in my late 50s I decided to improve my accent,” he said.
According to one new immigrant, as long as the workplace is filled with people from the same ethnic background, accent will not be an issue. “The problem begins when one has to communicate with other Canadians and it is hard when others cannot understand,” he said. Many call centres in India offer their employees accent reduction classes because good communication is essential. It saves time and avoids needless frustration from customers. Many managements in workplaces accross Canada on the other hand are loathe to even suggest an employee could be more effective if he or she worked on accent reduction. It is seen to be politically incorrect or even racist to give such valid feedback to an employee. The truth may hurt but so does having a hard accent.