An Accented Life

The accent of one’s birthplace remains in the mind and in the heart as in one’s speech. – Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Though, old Frankie didn’t work in a call center, he did manage a fairly accurate analysis of the accent training business. Personally, I would have asked an erstwhile trainee from my own accent class to fetch an axe against the tiresome lot who champion the cause of fake accents, since I do have
indeed got a lot to grind.
My eponymous encounter with the BPO industry was when I decided to step into the supposedly nefarious world of call centers to work as a communication expert. Despite precious claims by naysayers who had already rung its death knell and its own owl-esque living patterns, I now call it my haven. In my experience as a linguist and a voice and accent trainer, I’ ve often been drawn into unavoidable debates bout “losing your accent” –R.E.M’s revised litany for the business processing sector.
My beef is with those who so credibly pull wool over our eyes by making accent training sound as simple as baking a cake. The question is not entirely Shakespearian in its undertaking – To acquire or not to acquire. Sounds simple? Hardly. Accent is often defined as a pronunciation characteristic of a particular group of people relative to another group. Most BPOS cater to customers who, though, are native speakers of the English language, inhabit different continents and their accents have their own peculiarities as a result of the geographical and cultural distribution. Juxtapose this against the attrition trends in the call center industry. Now, is an agent expected exhale with a Texan twang in July even as he tries to master the Kiwi consonant sounds in December? Doubt it. Instead, it would be more sensible, nay, practical to not focus entirely on using a definitely fake accent and instead try to work towards inculcating skills with respect to language and speech than purely accent-ising verbal communication.
As a New York native, I found it difficult to explain to my first call center client that I couldn’t possibly train a batch on “American Accent”, primarily because no such thing existed. We(as in Yanks) did like tuokking(talking) about our Kuoffee(Coffee) but an average lad from Tennesse wouldn’t have shared in our enthusiasm for the same.
Before I get protracted, I ‘d rather explain my point –a) Its not possible to acquire an accent out of the blue and b) if you manage that unbelievably cumbersome task(aided, possibly, by some truly capricious accent druids!) then your “accent” won’t be universal in the very least.
The ideology strays from patriotism towards comfort. I am an Indian and I whole-heartedly support the BPO revolution but I refuse to buy the idea that purely by acquiring an accent you can improve your performance overnight. However, is it entirely comfortable to be jumping the accent ship ever so often? My trainees from the shop floor beg to disagree.
Agreed, NTI(Native language influence) can wreak havoc when you are trying to sell an I Pod to a Mom in Virginia but acquiring a sham accent that sounds less Virginia and more Vadodara won’t help either. As a language trainer I can vouch for that. Accent training needs to be redefined as we meander new frontiers in the field of BPO training itself, we now focus on weeding out discrepancies like Indianisms and Mother Tongue Influence/Regional Influence and allowing for people to speak a relative unaccented form of English that doesn’t pose threat or confusion for an average American/British/Australian customer.
In the end, accent, decidedly, does constitute a large part of anyone’s overall communication skills. It’s the thunder and lightning concept. You hear it, you form an opinion about it before you even get to see it. Acquiring a fake accent in the misguided attempt to “simplify” things may actually worsen the usual damage caused by Indian English. There is no doubt that vocabulary and fluency are of paramount importance but before I reach the haloed ground of Unbelievably Efficient Vocabulary, the call is over. Half-baked attempts at foreign accents won’t make but mar any bridges that a diligent agent might have attempted to make.
To cut a long diatribe shorter, I will reprint an anecdote from my own sessions. A shy trainee once complimented me on my derriere, which definitely sounded slightly out of place till he clarified that his American Accent trainer in the previous organization had asked him to replace his AAs with AEs and hence he was actually complimenting my “EYES” and not what I’d originally heard. Ahem. And to imagine he would have been struck for one crucial vowel sound swap. Touche.
So,Tito, we aren’t in Kansas anymore, just selling to them. Try sounding friendly, global and clear. That will do the trick.

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~ by iconoplastic on October 26, 2006.

2 Responses to “An Accented Life”

  1. Hey there,

    Though I dont possess your flair in writing, I totally and completely agree with your view here about Accent training. I am a communication trainer myself and I go through it everyday. Take care !

    Cheers !

  2. Now that was truth in a nutshell.

    People tend to be attracted to accents and that would certainly influence one to acquire a fake one, but on the other hand, the natural accent (according to where it is spoken) can inhibit one socially or professionally.

    Accents are truly the center of controversy in America’s society and the suggestions on how to improve, eliminate, stifle, or redesign are limitless and certainly create confusion to the accented speaker.

    With so many ways to go and too many crooked paths to get there, your profound line, “Try sounding friendly, global and clear,” is a port in the storm of communicating. Kudos

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