Speech of the Month, July 2019 - Amol Rajan

You're clever, you're ambitious, and you've got an accent

Speech of the Month, July 2019 - Amol Rajan

Unlike last month, July hasn’t been slow for speeches but (as I don’t want my blog to be dominated by Tory ministers) I’ve decided to write about a speech issue that’s been raised this month, albeit ‘speech’ in a different context. 

In summing up his findings in the excellent ‘How to Break into the Elite’ documentary, Amol Rajan says despairingly, "In a lot of elite professions, prejudice about class goes completely unchallenged because for all the talk of diversity and inclusion, class is the last barrier. Why is that? Maybe because it’s harder to see and define. Maybe it’s because working class kids don’t have a lobby. And maybe it’s because it’s still the most deeply rooted superstition in Britain today that if you sound posh, you must be clever."  

I want to pick up on the ‘if you sound posh you must be clever’ assertion because so many of my clients who have accents feel this fallacy and the repurcussions of it keenly. They don’t think they’re stupid, they have plenty of confidence in their abilities and ideas, but they sense that when they open their mouths, the sound of their speech rather than the content of it is what’s being judged. 

I speak with a south Manchester accent and sometimes when I tell people what I do for a living, I can see them fighting to lower surprised eyebrow lifts. I sense, and I’m sure I’m not wrong, that what they’re thinking is, ‘What? You? But how can you teach people to speak publicly when you’ve got an accent?!’ It’s as if being posh, sounding like Stephen Fry or Emily Blunt, is a prerequisite to being a good speaker. Yet this is clearly nonsense. Would Michelle Obama be a better orator if she spoke with Received Pronunciation? Of course she wouldn’t. 

So what should people with accents who want to get on in elite professions do? Should they enrol at the next available elocution class? Accent softening is on the up. And while it is possible to learn RP, when you’re about to give that major presentation, do you really want the added burden of delivering it in a learnt accent? Daniel Day Lewis might be able to pull off that level of performance, but will you? And if you don’t pull it off, then what? Not only do you look ridiculous but you’ll also be judged a fraud. So perhaps it’s best to simply slog on in the hope that one day these plates of snobbery and dimness will shift and then your potential will be realised. But how likely is it that that will happen during your working life? Not very. So what to do? 

Here’s the advice I give my ‘I hate my accent’ clients:

Brush up on your spoken grammar

Don’t gift those who’ll judge your accent by speaking with sloppy grammar. This will only confirm the prejudice that you’re not that smart. Accent and grammar are two different things. Because someone speaks with an accent, it doesn’t follow that their grammar should be poor, and because someone speaks with RP, it doesn’t follow that their grammar will be good.

But colloquialisms that are used by people who have accents are often grammatically incorrect, so it’s about identifying them and resisting the urge to say them. ‘I were, we was, less people, Me and John went…. All these are grammatically incorrect. And if you don’t know why, then find out why. There are plenty of books out there that will hone your grammar. Or ask someone in a senior position who you like and trust to be a critical friend and tell you if you make any grammatical howlers. Amol Rajan is a brilliant example of someone who’s bright and speaks with an accent but uses perfect grammar. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t present The Media Show

Pronounce your consonants - all of them!

It is a fact that the willingness to sound out consonants is connected to social class. When the queen speaks, she uses few vowel sounds but she pronounces all her consonants strongly. Hitting consonants firms up speech and makes the speaker appear more authoritative. So if you think you’ve a habit of dropping H’s, T’s or L’s at the end of words, or finishing words that end in ly, like completely, with more of a ‘leh’ sound than a clear ‘lee’ note, then start putting the work in. Stop being lazy! 

Soften the vowel sounds that cause confusion

If you speak with an accent a lot of your vowel sounds won’t be RP vowel sounds. It is vowel sounds that create accent, not consonant sounds. But I would never suggest that you convert them all. Rather, think about the vowel sound or sounds you have that might cause confusion or difficulty for listeners, and work on them. 

Earlier this year I heard a woman talk about how she’d asked a question in a university lecture, but because the question contained the word ‘code’ and because she came from Redcar and pronounced the ‘o’ sound in code with more of an ‘aw’ sound, the lecturer was hearing ‘cord.’ She kept saying her version of code and he kept repeting ‘cord’ in bafflement. This went on for an excruciatingly long time for the woman before a fellow student intervened and translated.

It’s this sort of vowel sound - one that could cause confusion - which I would try to soften.  

Have an accent hero 

Think of someone who’s intelligent and successful that you admire and respect and has a similar accent to you. Bear this person in mind when you go into any situation in which you feel others present might be sniffy about your accent. So if I were a young man from south London, Rajan would be my speech hero. His accent hasn’t held him back. And whenever I might feel nervous about opening my mouth and being heard, I would remember him and his articulateness.

My accent hero is the journalist and broadcaster Paul Mason. Actually, he has a much broader accent than me; Morrissey’s accent is much closer to my own. But as I say, I think it’s vital that you respect your accent hero. 

If you enjoyed this article, then maybe try some of my other blog posts.

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Five stars
“Emma is like a breath of fresh air inspiring participants to speak and present using not just their knowledge but their bodies too. An excellent programme!”

Martha Kelsey, The University of Hull, Yorkshire

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