By Andy Chuang
Originally Published on September 1, 2013
What prompted me to write this article:
Recently Inc. Magazine published an interview with Paul Graham on Building Companies for Fast Growth in which Graham said he had noticed a correlation between founders having very strong foreign accents and their companies doing badly. Specifically, he said:
“One quality that’s a really bad indication [of a business’s potential for success] is a CEO with a strong foreign accent. I’m not sure why. It could be that there are a bunch of subtle things entrepreneurs have to communicate and can’t if you have a strong accent. Or, it could be that anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent. I just know it's a strong pattern we’ve seen.”
This statement caused some stir and Paul immediately wrote an article, Founders’ Accents, to clarify his thought:
“The case I was talking about is when founders have accents so strong that people can’t understand what they’re saying. I.e., the problem is not the cultural signal accents send, but the practical difficulty of getting a startup off the ground when people can’t understand you.”
Personally, I think Paul could have reduced the flack if he had used a more hopeful tone, adding that having a heavy accent can be overcome; one can always strive to improve.
I do, however, appreciate his courage and honesty in pointing out something that is so fundamental and important: the ability to communicate.
In this article, I am not going to discuss whether a book should be judged by its cover or people should be judged by their accents. It is what it is. I’d rather discuss what can be done to improve things than worry about what others think.
The purpose of this article is to share some of the things I did and am still doing to improve my English and reduce my accent. I hope some of these suggestions will be helpful to you as well if you haven’t already tried them.
I came to the U.S. to attend college when I was 20. I was average at comprehending the written and spoken English but had a hard time speaking and forming correct sentences. Not being able to communicate well was terrible; people looked at me funny, as if I was stupid. I knew I knew more than people thought, but at the same time I wasn’t able to communicate my knowledge to them using their language. I really had no one to blame and I decided to improve my English.
A heavy accent can be improved.
Before I tell you about my own experience, let me share a story from a friend to show you how drastically a heavy accent can be reduced.
I knew my accent was terrible but in my first semester in the United States I met a friend who I thought had a “hopeless” accent. His accent was so heavy that everyone in the class had a hard time understanding him. His tongue twisted so much that when he said “L.A.” it sounded to me like L-blah-blu-blah-A. It simply took too much mental effort to translate whatever he was trying to say. He was very nice and friendly and we hung out from time to time, using our broken English with the help of facial expressions and hand gestures. I majored in Psychology and he majored in Engineering. We didn’t normally run into each other unless we made an effort to do so. So eventually we both got busy with school and other things and didn’t see each other for years. After about four years we ran into each other. I was shocked at how much his speaking had improved. I was able to understand him perfectly and although he still had the accent, it was not a distraction at all.
So no matter how terrible you think your accent is, you can always improve.
Five things I did to improve my English and reduce my accent:
Following are five things I did—and some I am still doing—to help me reduce my accent and improve my speaking ability:
1. Get Speech Therapy
When I was at Fresno State, someone told me I could take a one-unit speech therapy class to work with a student speech therapist one-on-one to help me reduce my accent. We met once a week and the graduate student, who majored in speech therapy, went over all the basic pronunciations for English, helped me identify my problem areas, and worked with me on those trouble spots. I recorded all the sessions, listened to the recordings, and tried to practice correct pronunciations. I have to admit it was not easy; I tended to fall back to my bad pronunciation habits. It was also not easy to be sure I pronounced words right unless I had someone who was willing to correct me. But just knowing my weaknesses and believing that I could improve if I keep on practicing were big helps.
If you are in college, or even if you are not, you might check into speech therapy at a university nearby. It definitely helped me even though it lasted only a few months. It was also cheaper than hiring a speech therapist outside of the campus. But even if it is expensive, I think it’s well worth the investment because any improvement will benefit you for the rest of your life.
So, take a speech therapy class or get some other professional help.
2. Watch TV or listen to the radio
I don’t waste my time watching TV anymore (I don’t even own one), but I used to have it on all the time. I had it on like background music whenever I was awake. At the time I still had a hard time forming a proper English sentence. I watched or listened to TV but didn’t try hard to understand or memorize what I heard. I just sort of mindlessly (I’m guessing it’s never truly mindlessly but the brain is busy working in the background at all times) picked up a word here and a sentence there. When I tired of the TV, I turned on the radio, mostly NPR. For a long time, I didn’t notice any progress. But one day, after a year or so, I was surprised that “all the sudden” I was able to understand most of the words spoken clearly and distinctly, much more than I had in the past. But I still had a hard time understanding songs. After about another year, I “suddenly” realized that I was able to understand lyrics in a song. “I didn’t know this song was so explicit. I don’t like it,” I thought to myself.
So, listen to spoken English every chance you get.
3. Get involved in your community
I am not an outgoing person by nature so I tend to spend time by myself or with only a couple of close friends. My friends, however, were usually very tolerant of my accent or wrong English usage.
I started going to a church a year after I graduated from college. It’s not a big church but it felt like 10 times more people than the number of friends I had. The church has a lot of fellowships (hanging out events) and people talk and share their life experiences. Week after week I get to talk to more and more people in English. The people are nice and some would gently, or not so gently but still in a friendly way, correct my English. I think that’s very important. Look for opportunities to speak and also be corrected. I don’t have thick skin, so being around people who are willing to correct me is a perfect environment for me.
So, I’d say get involved in your local community in organizations where most people speak English, whether it’s a church, temple, charitable organization, or interest group.
I became more and more comfortable speaking in English and had reduced my accent quite a bit, although it was still quite noticeable. The pastors at church started asking me to give short talks. I am not the type of person who likes to speak in public at all. The first time I gave a 10-minute talk I was so nervous my right hand was shaking so badly I couldn’t flip my notes. And immediately afterward my anxiety caused such severe stomach pain I thought I would never be able to be a good speaker. I really didn’t want to be like Moses in the Bible who complained, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” So I knew I had to do something.
4. Join Toastmasters
Several business books I read recommend joining Toastmasters to improve public speaking. So I visited toastmasters.org and found a club close to me. At the beginning it was overwhelming. The good thing about Toastmasters is that members have a similar goal: to improve their communication skills. Not only do you get chances to speak, but you also get to evaluate and be evaluated. The club I go to uses a dog training clicker to call people’s attention to their use of filler words like “mm,” “ah,” or “Xerox” words like “I, I . . .”, “We, we . . .”
Based on my slow but sure English learning experience, I know that as slow a learner as I am, as long as I keep on practicing speaking every chance I get, I’ll improve. And I have.
So, make time to join a Toastmasters club. You’ll get more chances to speak and improve your communication.
5. Hire an editor
Another part of improving my English is to improving my writing. Writing actually helps me think. I have worked with Ann for about 10 years. I’d e-mail her my writing on Word, now Pages, and ask her to turn on the track changes feature while doing the editing so I can see her corrections. I’m often amazed how she is able to make just a few changes and totally transformed a sentence. And slowly but surely I learned how to write better.
So, hire a good editor and write regularly.
Like Paul Graham said, the way to learn about startups is to start one. I think you’ll agree the same logic applies to reducing an accent and improving your communication. In other words, speak, speak, speak, and practice, practice, practice.
So getting speech therapy will help you identify your problem areas and maybe improve them. Listening to spoken English as much as you can via TV or radio will help you comprehend and get used to the rhythms and intonations of the language. Practice more by forming a habit of speaking regularly with real people face to face. Get involved in local community organizations and join Toastmasters to reduce your accent and sharpen your speaking skills. And finally, work with an editor who will help you write better and thus further improve your English and communication skills.
I’m happy to report that I no longer shake like a tree when I give a talk. I also feel a lot more comfortable speaking. I probably will never present with as much grace as Steve Jobs or speak as easily as many founders, but in terms of English accent and English speaking, when I compare myself to my former self, I know I’m doing better and better.
I hope my personal experience is helpful for you. I’d love to hear some of the ways you have tried to improve your English and/or reduce your accent.
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