Accent Switching

Posted on | March 20, 2007 | 4 Comments

I had never believed this could be done. A non-native speaker switches accents!

The other day I joined a skypecast, and I threw in one of the most commonly discussed topic on language learning: can a person become fluently in a foreign language without leaving his own country?

A person from the Philippines jumped in and started speaking. He did not think this was necessary. In fact, he himself was a counter-example. He spoke nearly-fluent English, which was his second language, and he claimed that he never lived in a foreign country before.

I personally have met many Filipinos who can speak fluent English, but they usually have a thick Filipino accent. On contrary, this guy did not. Rather, I recognized a slight American accent when he spoke. He claimed he had never lived in the US before. He must be watching a lot of American movies, I thought.

He then explained how he managed to attain his level of fluency. He worked in a remote call-center. For those who do not know the world is flat, today people set up remote call-centers (in India for example) to service customers from their own countries, usually English-speaking ones. They would train the employees in the remote countries to ‘speak like’ their customers. Hence, they would provide these so-called ‘accent’ courses. Usually there is an American accent course and a UK one. The Filipino told me that there was an Australian accent course for them because they had customers in Australia.

Suddenly I heard someone speaking with an Australian/British accent. Then I found out it was the same person! The accent was far from native, but I could clearly distinguish it from his previous American accent.

The Filipino told me that he had been working in the call center for 2 years. He worked 8 hours a day taking calls from the customers. The key was to imitate how their customers speak. It took him about 6 months to get used to the American way of speaking and communicate well with the American customers.

There is no short-cut to improve your speaking skills. You really have to speak a lot! I have heard of incidents when professional immigrants would look for a job in the call centers to improve their language skills.

A side note. Many people think they can do accent jokes. My advise is, record yourself and listen to it, see if you are satisfied with your accents. Otherwise, don’t let other people suffer.


4 Responses to “Accent Switching”

  1. frenchninja
    March 20th, 2007 @ 6:17 pm

    That’s really quite remarkable!

    I knew a German guy like that once, he could do a perfect Australian accent. He worked in radio – not the same thing, but I wonder if talkback helped him.

  2. Danling
    March 22nd, 2007 @ 10:44 pm

    Interesting post. I found myself speaking better Mandarin (my native language) when I spent summer vacation in Beijing. We southerners speak Mandarin with an accent. Just because I was with Northerners for a couple of month, I couldn’t help imitating them -almost unconsciously so I could be like one of them.

    When the world is flat, i guess one doesn’t have to travel far to pick up an accent.

  3. James
    April 3rd, 2007 @ 9:06 am

    An interetsting topic, but just one small suggestion to improve your written English would be to change the word ‘fluently’ in the paragraph I have reproduced below to ‘fluent’.

    I have given you the corrected paragraph below:

    The other day I joined a skypecast, and I threw in one of the most commonly discussed topic on language learning: can a person become fluentin a foreign language without leaving his own country?

  4. edwinlaw
    April 3rd, 2007 @ 9:34 am

    Thanks, James. It was a typo. 😛

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