By Dr. Maria G. Hernandez
Latina Cubicle Confidential™
If there is one topic that Latinas often fear to discuss — even among ourselves — it’s about having accents.
Among immigrants who entered the US as teens or young adults, it is likely that they will have an accent when speaking English. Even for those of us who learned Spanish first, there are subtle signs that English is our second or third language. And let me be the first to confirm — not all accents are created equal.
The accents of British, French, and German immigrants seem to be experienced as charming or distinguishing. The accents of Spanish speakers, Filipinos and Chinese immigrants can be associated with less favorable attributes. Every situation is unique and yet whenever I’ve told a story or two about someone telling me, “wow, you don’t speak like a Mexican” or “where did you learn your English? — you hide your Spanish so well” — many begin to share the same sort of story.
We can laugh it off but down deep inside for some, it is a source of anxiety and in some instances, Latinas will shy away from making presentations or taking a lead in a conversation. Need I say this is not a good thing for your career?
While being bi-lingual must be seen as a tremendous asset, if you fear that your accent in English is setting off alarms for your boss or your colleagues, do something about it.
First, ask a few trusted friends for their candid opinion. Sometimes your fear is not based in a fair judgment of your own speaking skills. Be sure to ask the important distinction: I know I have an accent, but is it hard for me to be understood?
This is key. If you are consistently asked to repeat things at work, you may be dealing with someone who just wants to put you on the spot and antagonize you. Or you truly may have some work to do.
The next step is to get a professional to help you learn techniques that can make a tremendous difference in modifying your accent or handle trouble zones. For example, in Spanish there is no equivalent for the sound associated with the letters “th”. As a consequence, it is often pronounced as a “d” or “t” sound. There are professional classes you can take privately or in a workshop setting to reduce accents where you will learn how to train your ear to hear these unique sounds in English and how to form those sounds, too.
Another option is, of course — “there’s an app for that”. There are now software programs available such as Accent Master and English Talk Shop that you can use in the privacy of your own home to work on your skills tailored to your original language.
The best of these have an interactive component that allows you to record your pronunciation of words and compare it to the way the word should be pronounced. The software can “listen” to your pronunciation and give you feedback. One iPhone application available on iTunes, American Accent Made Easy has emerged as well and more will follow.
The decision to work on reducing your accent is a personal decision and one that needs to be based on some independent feedback. If you believe that your accent is interfering with your career, then the investment of building up your skills is worth pursuing.
If you are being told that your accent is fine and you are clearly understood, then the vital effort for you may be to embrace the diversity you bring to your workplace and speak up with pride.
Dr. Maria G. Hernandez has 20 years experience consulting in both the United States and Mexico to senior executives in Fortune 50 companies and facilitated change initiatives for elected officials and their staff. She has worked in academia, business, nonprofits, technology startups, and public agencies. For more information, visit Latina Cubicle Confidential™.