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Is my accent causing problems? Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit

Question: If you have an accent as an immigrant and at times you observe that people don't understand some words pronounced by you, even though they dont tell you but through body language they show it, and in the end you tend not to speak most of the time. What is your suggestion. Thanks.

Nasreen, Toronto, Ontario
Dear Nasreen,

To begin with, you say that people don't tell you they do not understand what you are saying sometimes, but you can tell that this is true by their body language. Your concern may indeed be well founded. If so, I have some tips for you below. On the other hand, it might be that you are making some assumptions here that may not necessarily be accurate.

I am wondering, with all due respect, if your concerns about your accent could be a little exaggerated. What I mean is that, since you appear to be sensitive about the way you pronounce certain words, it may be that you perceive your own accent -- and the effect it has on distorting your words -- to be greater than it really is.

What I would suggest is that, rather than worry unnecessarily, you try to either validate, or disprove, your assumptions. This could be as simple as asking a few of your colleagues if they actually find you difficult to understand, especially at those times when you believe them to be displaying that 'body language' you refer to above.

Otherwise you could be shutting yourself down for no good reason. And your silence itself may be misinterpreted as extreme shyness, insurmountable cultural differences, or -- worst case -- as a display of being uninterested in your work. Why should this be the case if there really is not much of a problem in the first place?

However if your accent does turn out to be a genuine issue, you still have plenty of ways to improve things. For instance, you might try slowing down your speaking a little and making sure that you pronounce each word carefully. Or you could let your boss and colleagues that you are more than willing to repeat things if people are uncertain as to exactly what you are saying. While this may be a little embarassing at first, it's probably a whole lot better than silencing yourself for no good reason.

As a last resort, you might consider taking lessons in accent reduction (also known as accent neutralization or accent modification) from a local language school. These will help you sound more North American. But ask yourself this: is it really necessary to shed part of your identity, part of your cultural or ethnic heritage, especially if the 'problem' may lie more in your own anxiety than in reality?

In any case, the longer you live in Canada and speak among the general population, the more your speech patterns will tend to evolve so that you sound more like everyone else. That's why I suggest you continue to celebrate your uniqueness, and check out what's really going on before trying to fix something that may not truly be broken.

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