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Speaking in a Second Language
Dale Cyphert, PhD, © 2009

Everyone speaks with an accent!  

Even people who speak the same language will pronounce words and use phrases that mark them as coming from a particular part of a country...or even from a particular town or neighborhood.  No matter what country you come from, you can probably think of speech patterns that indicate a person comes from the south or the hills or the city.

Even though diversity in speech patterns is simply a fact of life, it does create some difficulties in public speaking situations. In particular, the person who is speaking in a non-native tongue to an audience of native speakers will often worry about speaking with a "strong" accent.  That is, his or her speaking patterns are different enough that the audience might have some difficulty understanding.  When there are also the normal issues of stage fright to contend with, a speaker can suffer considerable stress about the situation.

Actually, the speaker might be more worried about the issue than the audience is.  An accent can offer a bit of novelty, which can make the entire speech more interesting.  Depending on the languages involved, listeners might even associate the speaker's accent with very positive cultural connotations or find the accent especially pleasant to the ear.  Many second language speakers have unrealistic expectations about how perfect their speech should be in a new language (2),  which can also cause a speaker to worry unnecessarily. 

The most important thing is simply to make sure the audience can easily comprehend the speech, which might have very little to do with the speaker's accent. Even a slight accent can create problems with certain words, and a very heavy accent that is familiar to an audience can be easily understood.

Instead of worrying, take a few minutes to prepare for maximum comprehension:

  •  Write difficult or unfamiliar words on the blackboard before the speech begins.  Audience members should be asked to raise a hand or otherwise signal that a word is not being understood.  Those words can also be written on the board to help the audience comprehend the speaker. 
  • Use overheads and outlines so the audience can more easily follow accented speech.  When the speaker moves from one point to the next, the outline can be used as a visible signpost to help the audience anticipate and thus more easily comprehend the next point to be made.
  • Allow “extra” time in the introduction for the audience to adjust to an accent.  It takes several minutes for the ear to adjust to a very unfamiliar accent.  The speaker should offer some early material (perhaps a self-introduction or a formalized welcome) that is very easy to anticipate, very easy to comprehend, or nonessential to the main content of the speech in order for the audience to “tune” its ear to his or her accent.
  • The speaker should offer methods for the audience to stop the speech to get clarification when necessary for understanding.  If the audience is given permission to ask for clarification, it will begin to take its listening responsibility more seriously and become actively engaged in a dialogic communication process.
  •  Speak slowly and clearly. This is true for native speakers as well, but second language speakers sometimes equate language fluency with speed.  They need to realize that all speakers should speak more slowly than a “normal” conversational rate.  
  • Use gestures, facial expressions, and a “conversational” style to make perfect pronunciation less important.  Audiences will be far more tolerant and responsive to the confident, happy speaker and more likely to work harder to comprehend the speaker’s intent.
  • Accommodate or remediate volume and intonation expectations of the audience.  Speakers whose languages use very different tonal ranges from that of the audience can find themselves expressing unintended emotional messages. 
  • Practice the speech with an audience of standard-English speaking American friends, roommates or classmates, not just with cultural cohorts.  Increased familiarity with problem words, ideas and with the target audience’s probable reactions will reduce anxiety as well as allow the speaker to anticipate and make plans to mitigate comprehension problems. (2)
(1) Lewis, Stephen D., Linda G. McGrew, C. Nathan Adams. "Assessing Business Communication Assignments of English-as-Second-Language Students," Business Communication Quarterly 65.2 (2002): 30-43.
(2) Cyphert, Dale. "Speaking in a Second Language," Included in Communication:  Learning Climates that CultivateRacial and Ethnic Diversity, Judith S. Trent, ed.  Washington DC: National Communication Association and the American Association of Higher Education, 2001. 141-147.