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Accent

April 1st, 2009 · 4 Comments

I was ordering lunch at the local super market yesterday. The clerk was trying to confirm my order, but I had a hard time to understand what she said. She had a very heavy accent. In the end, she came out, and pointed to the items on the menu one by one to make sure I understood.

I was very patient, and smiling throughout the conversation. I knew how hard she was trying to communicate. I didn’t want her to feel bad.

I had been in her situation before. When my family just immigrated to the United States, I spoke very little English. I was very frustrated that people didn’t understand me. The worst was when people said "what?!", and simply dismissed what I said because they didn’t understand me due to my accent.

I was fortunate that I came to the United States at a young age, and was able to reduce my accent significantly. The funny thing is as I’m growing older, I’m less and less concerned about my accent.

In fact, I’m proud of my accent because it reminds me of where I come from. I’m proud of my heritage.

Let me tell you a story.

When I was a freshman at University of California at Berkeley, Chang-Lin Tien was the chancellor. In case you never heard about Chancellor Tien, he was born in China, and grew up in Taiwan. He finished his PhD in 24 months at Princeton University, and became a professor at UC Berkeley when he was 23 years old. When he was 26 years old, he became the youngest professor ever to receive UC Berkeley’s distinguish teaching award. He was an authority in thermal heat transfer. It was well documented that whenever NASA had any heat transfer related problems, the first person they call was Chang-Lin Tien. And he was the first Asian American who led a major research university.

But, I was shocked when I heard Chancellor Tien speaking for the first time. He was born in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Although he had lived in the United States for 30+ years, he still spoke with a very heavy accent. I had to fully concentrate to understand what he said.

Later I learned that "Chancellor Tien was a naturalized U.S. citizen who said he was deeply grateful to be an American, but he also was proudly Chinese. When he became chancellor, he declined the suggestion from well-meaning supporters that he seek coaching to speak with less of an accent."

I was deeply moved by this story. Accent is not a liability. It shows where I came from. It’s my heritage.

Of course, anyone who speaks English with an accent should make sure people understand you. But, don’t feel bad about your accent. Be proud.

If you’re a native English speaker, don’t look down or make fun of people who speak with an accent. Let me ask you a simple question: can you speak their native languages as well as the way they speak English? ๐Ÿ™‚

By the way, there are plenty of successful people in America who speak with heavy accents. Have you ever heard Henry Kissinger speaking?

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Tags: Learning and Growing

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Nam // Apr 1, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Is accent really not a liability? If you speak with heavy accent and you want to work in management consulting, I bet you could not land any job. And I hardly see anyone who can use a heavy accent as an asset to advance in her/his career. Well, except William Hung in American Idol. ๐Ÿ˜€

  • 2 GeekMBA360 // Apr 1, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    You have a good point. I think in certain professional areas such as management consulting, appearance and language skills are really important. Like said, accent could be a liability.

    However, over the years, I have seen plenty of people who succeed in investment banking, high tech, or even legal careers while speaking with heavy accents. It could be mind-boggling sometime. ๐Ÿ™‚ But, I think it's really important that you believe in yourself, and not let your accent to prevent you from trying things out.

    A Harrison Barnes, a former lawyer, legal industry recruiter, and successful entrepreneur, had a great post about this Russian lawyer who speaks with a heavy accent and graduate from a tier-3 law school, but kept getting better and better lawyer jobs in L.A. (http://www.aharrisonbarnes.com/2009/03/alpha-py…). Check it out. A great read — human minds can make a lot of “impossible things” happen if you believe and go for it.

  • 3 Renita Kalhorn // Apr 4, 2009 at 12:11 am

    When I was a college student at Juilliard (which has a very international student body), there was a girl in my class who spoke with a strong Russian accent –articulately, with perfect grammar. I still remember how surprised I was when I found out she had lived in the States since she was five years old or so. Clearly, she had made an effort to assert her cultural heritage by maintaining her accent.

    Of course, certain accents are harder to understand in English than others, but I think if someone fundamentally expresses themself clearly and intelligently, an accent simply adds “spice” to the delivery. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • 4 Renita Kalhorn // Apr 4, 2009 at 4:11 am

    When I was a college student at Juilliard (which has a very international student body), there was a girl in my class who spoke with a strong Russian accent –articulately, with perfect grammar. I still remember how surprised I was when I found out she had lived in the States since she was five years old or so. Clearly, she had made an effort to assert her cultural heritage by maintaining her accent.

    Of course, certain accents are harder to understand in English than others, but I think if someone fundamentally expresses themself clearly and intelligently, an accent simply adds “spice” to the delivery. ๐Ÿ™‚

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