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By Dilini Algama

Speaking with accents is a hot social topic in Sri Lanka and people approach accents with various attitudes. “I just switch off the radio at times,” says Prof. Sasanka Perera Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, University of Colombo, speaking of deejays with heavy accents even going to the extent of pronouncing the same word differently in one sentence. It is this inconsistency that gives away the fact that an accent is put on and therefore is not natural. An accent  would remain the same throughout if one has acquired it naturally–for example during a lengthy overseas stay. There exist however those who think that ‘learning’ to speak with an accent has its benefits.

Accent matters–according to some

“If you and my sister who talks with a British accent went to the same job interview she’ll be given preference,” says Dr. Adikari Buddhika, course director of BCC an institution that professes to teach a ‘mostly American with a British’ accent within a period of four months.

Frankly, I thought it was the language itself– the ability to communicate that would get points. But, here I was being told that his sister would beat me at a job opening simply by talking in a British accent. I could not accept that stance.

“Would I impress you more, right now, if I said, ‘I eat cake yesterday?’ I asked the offending phrase with an accent of sorts.

“Yes. Yes, you would,” replied Buddhika.

Dr. Adikari Buddhika has a doctorate in electrical engineering and heads a company that teaches “Killer English with accent training” as formally publicized. A former lecturer at the University of Moratuwa he believes that accents carry a significant weight when communicating, especially when it comes to job interviews. “It’s a marketing tool. It’s simple as that. It shows that one has had foreign exposure,” says Buddhika going on to say that although no accent is wrong, attitudes are just the harsh reality. He also said that a person who has an American or British accent can impress a person. “It’s wrong to feel that way, but you can’t deny it,” he said.

He continued to say that even as a lecturer where he has had to evaluate students’ presentations, content was only one component and that presenting confidently with an accent could perhaps get someone more marks.

Asian accents

According to the head of BCC, who spent four years in the United Kingdom, Sri Lankan accents and Indian accents do not fare well there. In fact people with Asian accents are made fun of and Buddhika believes that learning an accent is a good option for a person who wishes to blend in with a community and especially to be understood. “I’m talking through personal experience. Students at times are even referred to as the one with the Indian and or Sri Lankan accent and not by their names,” he said continuing to say that it is just the harsh reality.  The Principal of the Wendy Whatmore Academy of Speech and Drama, Wendy Whatmore remembers an instance a few years ago where a company wanted its employees to be trained in an American accent so they would be better understood by Americans they had to correspond with frequently.

Companies have a common attitude

No emphasis is placed on accents when interviewing applicants, said Sujeewa Ranasinghe, Head of Human Resources of the Commercial Bank. According to her it is the language skills, the ability to read and write that applicants can score with at interviews. “We actually place a huge importance on Sinhala and Tamil as well, as our recruits get sent to branches in various places in the country,” said Ranasinghe.

Sunil Dissanayake, Head of Human Resource at Hayleys said that accents are not at all taken into account during interviews. “The ability to communicate should be there and candidates should be able to communicate effectively to be understood,” said Dissanayake. Although most jobs require some knowledge of English as a minimum requirement, Hayleys conduct its own English language programme for employees who need to improve their English competency levels. The organization also has a Hayleys Group Toastmaster Club that staff can join when they complete its Speech Crafter’s programme. The staff can use this programme to improve their presentational skills.

Executive and non-executive level staff at Hemas Holdings PLC are also provided with programmes which include spoken English lessons. According to Niranjan Perera, Senior Manager Human Resources for Hemas Marketing, accents are not taken into account when interviewing prospective employees. “What is evaluated is competency in English language usage. Possessing   an accent does not count as a merit nor does it give more points to a candidate,” said Perera even though Hemas also has a foreign clientele. The same goes for ‘Hello Corporation’, a company that has clients based in the USA, UK, Australia, Singapore and the Middle East.

Accent in perspective

“There were many things to consider when ‘teaching’ an American accent to employees of an organisation,” recalled Whatmore. “There are different American accents. New Yorkers have a more clipped, precise accent while Southerners speak with what is called a ‘drawl,’”  she said. When it comes to speaking English with an accent elocutionary speech is a thing of the past. What is needed is to speak with good modulation, intonation and a clear voice, advised Whatmore. She also emphasized the importance of consistency and maintaining one way of talking and warned that a speaker could get “totally and utterly mixed” if he or she had to artificially learn a new accent. Also, speaking in an accent is completely unnecessary.

Said Whatmore. “If one has not acquired it through natural means, such as spending many years in a particular country an artificially acquired accent will sound put on.”

According to Roxanne Harrison, Manager-Courses at the British Council Teaching Centre although it is British textbooks that are used to teach English to students learning the language for international communication, the listening activities make sure that learners are exposed to a large number of regional and international accents. Teachers at the British Council also have a wide variety of accents, said Harrison.

Prof. Sasanka Perera believes that the issue of accents in speaking English, has a lot to do with identity and self -perception. In Sri Lanka one still sees remnants of colonization where people still prefer to identify with things foreign. “This is why an accent is regarded as a symbol of social status,” explained Prof. Perera. He also went on to say that while a move to learn an accent artificially, as opposed to acquiring it due to circumstance, is relatively harmless  partially acquired accents being aired over TV and radio could be disturbing. The emphasis should be on content, especially in the case of academic presentations made in English by students whose mother tongue is either Sinhala or Tamil. “Otherwise it’ll be a case of informal pre-requisites people will bring into a formal grading system. It’s unethical to say the least,” he said.

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