Bad accent? Don't lose it, use it

By Craig Mcintosh ( China Daily ) Updated: 2015-06-27 08:17:52

I've gotten used to people nodding and smiling politely at me whenever they have no clue what I've just said - Chinese, Americans, and even some fellow Englishmen; they all do it.

My accent is not easy for some people to understand.

On almost a daily basis, while in discussion with one of my Chinese colleagues, I will ask a question to which the response is a patient stare as they wait for me to continue with whatever it is they think I'm saying.

Foreign colleagues, meanwhile, have a habit of asking me to repeat sentences, before turning one ear toward me and furrowing their brow like someone straining to hear the news on an old, beaten-up transistor radio.

I grew up in the northeast of England, and although I had visited other parts of Britain as a child, I only truly realized that people struggled with my accent when I first visited the United States in 1999.

Before starting an internship in the summer of that year, I took the chance to have a brief holiday in New York City. One day, I dropped into the NBC Experience Store to buy some souvenirs and was soon accosted by a young saleswoman wielding a tray of jams.

"Would you like to try one of our selection of delicious preserves?" she asked, with enough pep to almost make me drop my Quantum Leap mug.

"Aye," I said, using my vernacular. "What kind of flavors have you got there then?"

No answer, just a blank look. There was silence for about five seconds and then eventually she smiled, pointed at the jams on her tray, and repeated her question - this time in Spanish.

"No, no, no. I ain't Spanish," I protested. "I were askin' what flavors you had 'cause I fancy tryin' one."

I did not get any jam that day. But I did learn an important lesson: I was going to need to tone down my accent if I wanted to be understood here. Several months later, back in Britain, I started work at a newspaper in Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of Shakespeare, which is more than 300 kilometers from my hometown and infinitely more posh. Here, despite focusing on "speaking proper", I continued to see the same clueless expression on people's faces when I spoke.

Although proud of my northern roots, at this point I became determined to shed my accent.

It was not long before my editor was able to arrange for me to spend a few hours with the Royal Shakespeare Company's Andrew Wade, a renowned voice coach who has trained some of the world's best actors. In a back room at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, we started with a few exercises using a passage from King Lear, breaking down the syllables, and then reciting it by pronouncing only the vowels. We also went through breathing techniques, and he taught me about the power of aspiration.

Chatting after our lesson, Wade asked me why my editor had arranged voice coaching for me, and I told him that I wanted to lose my accent.

"My boy!" he cried like a true thespian. "Why on earth would you want to do that?"

He insisted that regional accents are important and beautiful, and that the voice is just one of many ways to communicate a message. Sure, my pronunciation could be improved, but I shouldn't try to lose my accent, he said.

So I didn't. From then on, I used Wade's tips in elocution to soften my tones and slow my speech, but I abandoned any thoughts of ditching my northeast twang.

Sixteen years later, I can speak clearly when I want to. But, if I'm honest, confounding colleagues in Beijing with conversational cacophony is far more fun.

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