“We have an executive who has asked for accent training. It is true that she is often unclear but she’s almost 50. Is it too late to make changes?”
The short answer is that it is not too late. People often assume that the younger one is, the easier it is to assimilate a new accent. This is true for children, but research confirms that accents tend to get set by around 12 years old.
It is also true that the longer we do something in one way, the more solidified it becomes, and the more work is required to shift it. This is true for any skill, requiring relearning and often physical re-programming.
Additionally, there are several factors not related to age that influence the success of training. You can read more about these in “How to Support Non-Native Speakers in the Workplace”. (I can send it to you – please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org).
So, what age-related factors may influence how effective accent training will be? Here are four things to consider:
- Length of time speaking the language
As a rule, the longer a client has been speaking English, the more entrenched pronunciation habits become. A 35-year-old who started at 20 has more time speaking English than a 45-year-old who started to learn English at 35. In this respect, often the older client has been speaking English for a long time. But this is only one factor of many that influence how easily we can adjust our accents.
This question is largely based on the old adage: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” While it is true that the frontal cortex of the brain continues to develop until around age 25, making it easier for young people to absorb new information, recent studies into neuroscience and the plasticity of the brain have shown that the brain’s ability to reprogram itself does not get lost.
Unfortunately, many people have internalized the belief that they are too old to change. This is what is often called a fixed mindset – we condition ourselves to accept a certain status quo and consequently limit any progress. Believing we can do something creates drive and creativity as we work to reach a goal. This belief is essential in the process of accent modification training.
- Desire & motivation
Often a client comes to me because of a performance review or on the recommendation of a manager or HR professional. While this is not an issue in and of itself, what is absolutely necessary is that the client has the personal motivation and desire to make some changes in how they speak. It is a long process to adjust how we speak, requiring discomfort, focus and considerable time spent repeating and drilling. This can be uncomfortable and tedious. Self-motivation is essential. It is true that unclear speech can limit professional advancement. But the older a client is, the less moving up professionally may become given their concern about the time and effort involved alongside their desire to spend time with family and friends and participate in other activities as they age.
Sometimes unclear speech can become a serious issue in the workplace, occasionally becoming a safety issue and potentially a factor in job security. This is certainly a motivating force for the client. Another motivating factor could be related to more relaxing social interactions which allow the client to broaden their social circles. It can also help them to understand English media more easily as any pronunciation training refines listening skills. This is true for any client but, in the case of an older client who is not at risk of losing their job, it may be an additional source of increased motivation.
It is extremely useful, when involved in adjusting speech, to be surrounded by the accent being worked on. Many clients live and socialize primarily in their native language when outside of work. They watch TV, read and listen to media from their country. Their friends tend to be from their culture and speak their native language. While this is fine, it reinforces their native accent. Immersing oneself as much as possible in the accent being learned helps to reinforce the new way of speaking and support the client’s developing ability to hear differences in speech and enunciation.
Immersion is helpful to anyone at any age when studying a language. There are several reasons I include this on the list of age-related factors. One is that it is often more difficult for older clients to make new friends due to lifestyle and family commitments. Another is resistance to discomfort – going into new situations and developing new habits. And thirdly, mindset plays a major role. Mentioned previously, being open to change is key when learning a new way to speak.
When exploring accent modification training – I prefer to say “clear speech” training – with an older employee, perhaps this article could be of use so that everyone can consider the variables, make an informed decision and prepare appropriately.