It can take 30 milliseconds of time (University of Alabama, 1984) for somebody to deduce that somebody came from a different background, one that is not of their own.
Within that time frame, the first impression is beginning to set in. A snap judgement can be made from something as small as an accent. Just like that, an implicit bias is formed.
All immigrants face this struggle when coming to America.
This is something that my parents had to face. As Hong Kong immigrants, they faced the challenge of immigrating to chase the American dream. Among the various roadblocks they faced, navigating the English language proved to be especially difficult. They came in speaking non-native English, English that was taught by the British system.
My parents thought they were prepared. After all, Hong Kong was a British colony, “How hard can it be?”
But they were dead wrong.
While their education in Hong Kong might have given them the basics to survive in America, they were completely unprepared. Even after years of English training in Hong Kong, it was anxiety-inducing to order McDonalds. As my Mom said, “It was tough to communicate properly especially on the job, people just didn’t understand what I was saying.”
My dad was doing his Ph.D in physics and my Mom was getting certified to be an accountant. They were top of their class back in Hong Kong. Yet despite their extensive education, they were struggling with mastering the intricacies of language and accents, often to the detriment of their professional success.
The most frustrating issue they had to work through when they came to America was being a non-native English speaker. Mastering the English language is an obstacle that has stuck with them to this day. My Dad always said,
“If I just knew how to speak English better, I would have risen so much higher.”
It’s not so simple to change something that has been so ingrained in everyday life like speaking and language. The tones, the muscle memory, all of it was already established when they were children, and now they were attempting to change it to be understood better.
It wasn’t something that could be changed overnight. It wasn’t even something that could be changed after years of living in the states.
No. In order to truly change the accent, it takes a lot more than just passive learning.
There are two important steps to improving the English accent.
1. Listening to a tried and tested authority figure on what the American accent is
Listening to somebody who has the American accent is essential to improving one’s own accent. Listening is always the first step, the most important step. Your brain can already tell the difference between the way you speak and the way the authority figure speaks.
2. Dedicated practice to improvement, every single day. Doesn’t have to be a lot, but it has to be consistent.
As Malcolm Gladwell popularized, it takes 10,000 hours to get truly good at something. 10,00 hours of dedicated practice. Since most people already speak English during the day, it is unnecessary to dedicate that much time. But it does take dedicated practice everyday, to ensure that there are improvements being made.
My Parents Tried BoldVoice, The App that Helps Improve the English Accent
Developed at Harvard University in order to help non-native speakers like my parents to help their pronunciation, BoldVoice helped them understand what parts of their speech needed improvement.
Guided by top Hollywood accent coaches, Ron Carlos and Eliza Simpson, BoldVoice had the expert advice necessary for them to progress their English to the next level.
My Mom always struggled with the R sound, but my Dad had more difficulty with the P sound. BoldVoice optimized their lesson plans. Each of them could directly see which sounds they did well on and which ones they struggled on. The app gave them detailed feedback instantly in real time, something that my Mom really enjoyed seeing. Seeing the percentages on how they scored allowed for them to get an accurate understanding of how they were doing right away.
The app allowed them to take it at their own pace. My Mom went through the program much quicker than my Dad, who took it slower and repeated his lessons a couple of times. The app allowed for different type of learners to go through the entire process at the speed that they were most comfortable with.
When I introduced them to the app, both of them wished that they had something like this back when they first immigrated to America.
This isn’t just something for Cantonese speakers either. BoldVoice structures their lesson plans around the native language that you come from, so it can be used by anybody around the globe who is trying to speak clear unaccented English.