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Your Accent is Too Strong!

When I started learning German I was so excited to speak with Germans that I would walk up to them in a bar and ask if I could speak German with them. Creepy? Hilarious? Weird? Probably all of the above, but it helped me learn the language in an informal setting where I had liquid courage on my side. When my speaking abilities transferred from the barstool to the meeting room I quickly noticed that people would immediately start speaking English with me. I couldn't figure out why. I was doing my best, making an effort to speak their language. Yes, I made mistakes, but my grammar wasn't that bad. And then someone told me: Your American accent really strong. My stomach dropped...I was hurting their ears with my accent.

It took me years to work on imitating a German accent, perfecting it to a point where people usually cannot tell where I am from. Is it flawless? Absolutely not, but I have come a long way. It was a daily battle, mimicking words, repeating them often enough until I finally understood where the sounds were produced in the mouth. Now, when I watch a colleague give a presentation or speech, it warms my heart to hear the accents roll off their tongues as they speak English, and I commend them for taking the leap to do business while speaking a foreign language on a daily basis. Sometimes my colleagues aren't as compassionate.

One of the worst things we can do is to make the comment in a professional (or personal) environment that someone's accent is so strong we find it tough to decipher what they are saying. When we say it in front of our colleagues it pushes those individuals to the outside, as if only us small circle of Americans are competent enough to give a presentation because we might have to work a little harder to understand. They choose to push themselves every day to speak a foreign language and we throw this roadblock in their way by putting them down. Shame on us.

Many of us fail to realize that if we make such comments in a group setting or in front of Management, we are planting the seed that this person should not be in a position to present. This could be interpreted as permission to question their competence in a specific subject and pushes them even further into the category: Outsider. This could mean that they are not given the opportunity to present in the future, a repercussion that could be detrimental to their career progression. But there are a few measures we can take, aside from not making comments like that in the first place:

If you are a manager and have individuals on your team that you would like to see grow in their English abilities, then I encourage you to take a page out of my book: I like to have my team present weekly updates on their projects so I can assess their presentations skills and give them feedback in a small group round. This will provide them a safe setting to allow them to both practice and grow. If you are a colleague and you hear someone speaking like this, I can only encourage you to stick up for your colleague, telling them that you have no problem understanding them and you thought they gave a great presentation.

Whether you are a colleague or their boss, you should know that when you work with them instead of push them out, it is an amazing experience to watch them grow. You will find that their growth will surpass the English language and allow them to develop as a colleague. If that wasn't enough, I guarantee they will bust their asses for you if you help them grow into the team, into someone who is more accepted in the workplace. This might require a small amount of effort on your part but I promise the results are monumental.

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