The following excerpts are edited from an interview with Voice to Word Director and Trainer, Heather Chetwynd, and Trainer Mark Prince. In this interview (with the Chinese Professional Association for Canada – CPAC – which can be heard in full on our resource page,) Mark and I discuss a variety of factors involved in accent modification training. This posting focuses on culture and communication:
Feedback & Clarification
HEATHER: People sometimes think they have a pronunciation issue when sometimes it’s much more a cultural issue. For example, I’ve noticed that a number of students I’ve worked with don’t verify things. So when someone tells them what to do, and they don’t really verify it, the other person isn’t sure they’ve been understood. They have to assume they were understood. The listener hasn’t said, “OK, so I’d like to summarize this…” This is much more an issue with conversation and communication, not really a pronunciation issue.
MARK: I think feedback is really important as well — the willingness to give and receive feedback. Receiving feedback is one thing but it’s also important to give it. And that could mean giving people feedback who are learning from you or giving feedback to the people you are learning from — your supervisors, your managers. So feedback works in all directions.
Individualism & Self Promotion
HEATHER: I’d like to give an example of a cultural issue (I regularly notice when I go into a Chinese pronunciation class we teach.) When I come in, for example, I sometimes say: “OK, who did their homework?” and no one puts their hand up. So to me, nobody has done their homework. And then I find out that everyone has done their homework. If they were all native-born Canadians, and they had done their homework, they would say “I did it, I did it.” because they want to show that, as an individual, they’ve done what they’re supposed to do. But Chinese often don’t want to stand out in a group so no one wants to say anything. This is just one example of a cultural difference and how people interpret the behaviour differently
MARK: Self-promotion is something that we do here. And of course, there can be too much self-promotion — everything in moderation — but we do certainly self-promote and offer ourselves as individuals in this culture. And so that is something that certainly comes up.
HEATHER: Another thing is talking too quietly and no one can hear you. And so in Canada, we just won’t listen. And a lot of people have a hard time projecting their voice or else they just don’t want to stand out — they’re not used to it. But the fact is, if you don’t project your voice in a meeting, basically people will discount you. That’s also a cultural thing.
MARK: And I’d like to add one more cultural thing. I had a client who once asked me about water cooler talk. Do you know what I mean by water cooler talk? That’s when you go into the kitchen, that area of your office, and you’re just getting a glass of water and you talk about the weekend, etc. — small talk. This client was saying, “I don’t always follow what I can hear happening between two native Canadian speakers.” And I remember asking: “Well, what kinds of questions are you asking to get involved in the conversation?” And I remember the reply was: “I’m not asking questions.” And so we discovered that there was a cultural aspect of needing to put yourself into a conversation to find out more, to ask what someone means or to clarify something — just asking all those clarifying questions. This wasn’t always present for him and we discovered a slight cultural difference there. Here in Canada, hey, if you want to clarify what’s going on, ask. Open ended questions and clarifying questions are something that we find very useful, very positive and a healthy way of generating conversations.
Culture & Personality
HEATHER: We’ve gone from pronunciation into a much broader topic but it is all certainly linked, certainly related. I think it goes back to what I was saying about someone who feels Canadian to us even though they may have an accent — it’s their manner which feels Canadian and so people feel comfortable with them. As long as they’re speaking clearly — I agree, it is important to speak clearly. But I don’t think it’s a problem having an accent. And I don’t think it is necessarily a reason for discrimination. I think the bigger concern is, do people feel like you can relate? And that’s more to do with expression and exactly these examples we were talking about. If you sit quietly by the water cooler and don’t ask me anything, I’ll ignore you. So therefore you’re not integrated.
MARK: And it’s difficult sometimes to determine what’s cultural and what’s personality. For example, many people think Canadians are typically shy, and I am also a shy individual. So those things need to be discovered as well, i.e. what’s the difference between your culture and your personality… Through conversation with the individual we can find out some things and then adjust accordingly… This kind of work is so personal, everybody’s different.
I think it is also important that native speaking Canadians be more inclusive of those who are quieter and silently standing by. We should be asking new Canadians questions to involve them in conversation and make them feel welcome. It works both ways. Self promotion is fine but not always easy. Companies need to educate native speaking Canadians too because sometimes individuals can be so inconsiderate and rude.
Agreed. There is an initiative in Canada to educate companies to be more inclusive, to understand the issues of cross-cultural integration and to take the risk of hiring foreign-trained professionals. But in the end, one can’t wait for these changes to take place. Meanwhile, we need to find ways to reach our goals which, in the case of many immigrants, means adapting to the dominant behavioural expectations. Just as a shy native-born Canadian needs to speak up to be listened to, so do foreign-born Canadians who have been raised to be more soft-spoken and less talkative.
That is fantastic insight and you are so correct, it is not just about English. Peer/family pressure is a major block in one’s ability in acquiring a language and how well one speaks it. There are many, many factors, but that is a big one.Your opinion on ESL teacher/tutor awareness is right on. Having that information will signal to the teacher/tutor how to approach the student and assist in diminishing his/her insecurities while helping ease the tensions surrounding peer/family pressure. Understanding makes things easier for both the teacher and the student.
Thanks for your comments. I certainly believe that attitude is key in learning a language. So having support from those around you can make all the difference.