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.

Small Talk

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.