Accent reduction: 5 reasons heavy accents can hurt you in your job

You can improve your accent even when you’re past 40!

Igor, who worked in Support in a high tech company in Silicon Valley, had a heavy Russian accent: he mangled the TH sounds, his R was heavy and he rolled it and he dropped his voice at the end of the sentence, so you couldn’t understand the last words.

When people talked to him in person, they understood him once they got used to his accent, but on the phone – that was a major problem.

Callers would get frustrated, some of them even told him to learn to speak “American”!

Clearly, although he knew the products very well and could solve customer problems quite fast and easily, enough callers complained so that his manager told him that unfortunately he had to learn better American English pronunciation fast. If not, they would have to move him to a “non-speaking” role in the company, which he didn’t want because he enjoyed his work with customers.

Igor had been in Silicon Valley for a couple of years already, but he tended to hang out with other Russians, his wife was Russian and they both spoke Russian to their children. No wonder he wasn’t speaking English well.

Fortunately for him, his company offered to get him lessons with a private accent reduction coach.

We saw – besides the habit of pronouncing /th/ sounds like an /s/ [so /this/ became /sis/] – that he also confused the /v/ and /w/ sounds. /very/ became /wery/] and  words like /device/ and /overall/ were impossible to understand.

The problem was that the coaching sessions weren’t teaching him basic English [ESL], but we were changing speaking habits. Changing habits is much harder to do and takes quite a long time.

To make a longer story short, Igor worked with me for 3 months, he practiced my recorded vocabulary lists in the car and tried to hang out more with his non-Russian colleagues at work so that he would speak more English during the week.

It would be easy to say that Igor’s accent went away in the time, it didn’t.

Normally foreign language speakers can’t get rid of their accents once there are adults. However, because he stayed aware of his English and his pronunciation, Igor made progress. The once difficult /th/ sounds became easier to say consistently and the confusion with /v & w/ became easier to handle as well.

His manager was pleased with Igor’s progress and didn’t see any reason to transfer him to a new department anymore.

Now the only thing that Igor has to do is stay consistent and not slide back into old habits. But, since he is able to see me once a quarter, this won’t happen. The lesson is: keep practicing until new habits replace the old ones and don’t forget to stay conscious of speech and previous mistakes so they don’t creep in again.

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