Thursday 24 June 2010

accent intolerance

The call centre for my bank is evidently located somewhere in Scotland. At any rate, every customer service officer I have spoken to there speaks with a Scottish accent. I’m ashamed to say that sometimes I have had difficulty understanding them, particularly over a bad phone line and when they speak fast, no doubt parroting a script they have uttered many times before. I sometimes have to ask them to repeat what they’ve said, more slowly.
But I acknowledge that my difficulties in coping with the Scottishness of their pronunciation is a shortcoming of my own rather than of theirs.
Not everyone takes that line.
Today’s Guardian has an amusing article poking fun at the letters page of the Daily Mail (a sensationalist right-wing paper).

Its criticism is directed towards the letters editor of the Mail for printing a xenophobic rant about TV coverage of the World Cup. The writer of the letter had to sit through “a match between Bongo Bongoland and the Former Soviet Republic of Bulimia and other meaningless events”. In mitigation (?), the Guardian points out that the paper also saw fit to print “the tragic tale of a man from the Home Counties who has been forced to listen to a Northern Irish accent”.
I can't understand the popularity of the woman on The One Show on BBC1 each evening [Christine Bleakley]. Her accent is almost indecipherable. Lord Reith must be turning in his grave.

I agree that we English people tend to feel that from the point of view of intelligibility a Belfast accent is a Glasgow accent in spades. But it does not follow that Ulster people should be banned from the airwaves.

There’s a lesson here for EFL, too. Learners should not be exposed only to an unvarying diet of RP (or General American). Like NSs, they need to practise their listening comprehension for a wide range of varieties of English.


  1. After all, it's a free market economy. If a bank has people answering who aren't understood by most of their customers, the customers might look for another bank. The BBC is a different matter.

    And the bank certainly didn't pick Scots in order to show the riches of English accents.

    The politically correct thing to do for non-commercial places might be to have everybody speak his or her accent, or language, in fact, and subtitle that in standard written English. They do that sometimes, but if the accent is not too remote from RP/GA, it might be regarded to be insulting.

    Personally, I think that just as we should keep description and prescription apart in other areas, we should descriptively recognise that there's a standard (with quite a range) that's understood by most people, and that "stronger" accents simply aren't, whether we like it or not.

    When you blame yourself rather than the call centre people, do you blame yourself as a linguist or as resident of Britain?

  2. In my view such difficulties are rarely a matter of pure accent (after all how many people have an accent that is really so thick that a fellow native speaker, especially a linguist, has genuine difficulty understanding?) as of diction. As you say, they are parrotting something at top speed. In which case yes, it is their fault, or that of the people who hired or trained them: they are dealing with people from all over the UK and it's vital they speak clearly.

    People in Indian call centres for whom English is a recently learned language can have quite strong Indian accents but generally speak "well", while a British call centre worker with a milder accent (of any sort) may be more difficult to understand because they have the British habit of speaking carelessly.

    As for customers voting with their feet if they can't understand people at the call centre, I don't suppose that counts for much. A few insitutions now try to make a selling point of "only British call centres" but as this post shows, that doesn't necessarily help.

    Of course, the siting of call centres depends on things like staff costs (India) and good trunk communications (west central Scotland), though often comes accompanied by some specious press-release spraff about "research proving" that the accent of the chosen area is perceived as honest or friendly or something.

  3. I'm an Italian who's lived in the UK for 10 years (2 of which in Scotland) and I have no problems understanding Christine Bleakley. I think that some people (especially Daily Mail readers) sometimes either exaggerate or quite simply make things up when it comes to accents, just to make a point.

    I've worked in call centre here in Scotland that received calls from various European countries, and we had Polish girls answering English and Italian calls, Brasilians answering Greek ones and so on. Everyone was perfectly intelligible in whatever language they were using, yet you could bet that the moment things went wrong (we had to deal with broken computers, a touchy matter) people would start complaining that they could not understand the accent of whoever was dealing with them. On the very same day I had a Spanish customer asking me which part of Spain I was from (nowhere, I learned Spanish at Uni) and another one complaining that he could not understand my accent!

    Of course sometimes some people can be difficult to understand, but all it takes, as John Wells did, is to ask them to repeat, and for them to try to speak more slowly or more clearly if they see that a particular person is struggling.

  4. Hey John, I know I am just a dirty rat but that's precisely why I can warn you: Do not be ashamed of being superior! (We dirty rats need good models more than anyone.)

  5. a Belfast accent is a Glasgow accent in spades

    Good heavens! And there was me thinking a Glasgow accent is a Belfast accent in spades.

  6. I entirely agree with Harry Campbell, except that as a Yank I would speak of enunciation rather than diction (which to me means "choice of words", something these people don't control). I am always astonished when my fellow-countrymen speak of British accents they can't understand; I only fail to follow actors on British television programs when they are mumbling, though I confess that RP mumblers are easier to understand than Northern dialect mumblers.

  7. The ability to correctly identify regional accents must be a good sign that an L2 speaker has reached a very advanced stage. I certainly can't do it for any language beside English.

  8. The BBC's early-80s series on English subtitled two salt-of-the-earth Corkmen in conversation. Cork was torn between pride at being distinctive and embarrassment at being deviant.

    Given a dialect continuum, it's intuitive that a dialect somewhere in the middle will have a higher average intelligibility than a dialect from one of the margins. That should apply to accents as well as dialects, but I don't know to what extent RP can meaningfully be considered as a middle or average of British accents.

    When two people with different accents converse, I do think the burden of accommodation falls more on the professional and less on the customer, provided the job involves speaking to customers with a range of accents. The reverse is true if, say, the customer is a tourist in a local shop.

  9. @John Cowan: As a fellow Yank, I found the distinction between diction and enunciation interesting. I wasn't aware there was one. Diction is the word I would use here, and I think you'll find that it is in common use as a synonym for enunciation. But of course you are right about its initial meaning, and I have learned something new.

    Like John Wells, I deplore the close-mindedness of people who lack the patience to accept and deal with accents other than their own. That said, I also deplore the lack of training in telephone speaking skills that would render more speakers intelligible to more listeners. Rushing, and not enunciating consonants more than one might in conversation with one's friends, are often more of a problem than accent in toto.

    People often forget how much lip-reading is generally involved in what we think of as hearing. Take away the visual, and you lose vital information unless you compensate for the loss in other ways.

  10. How true, Amy! And how brave of JW to call this piece "accent intolerance", however un-PC it is to be intolerant of the communicative chaos of call centres as long as one's anguish can be blamed on "accent intolerance" instead of the intolerability of communicative incompetence in communication professionals.

    He does do a bit of PC clawback by saying "I acknowledge that my difficulties in coping with the Scottishness of their pronunciation is [?] a shortcoming of my own rather than of theirs", but that is absurd. Perhaps he even intends it to be. If he of all people can't cope with it what hope is there for the rest of us?

    Perhaps this is what you call close-mindedness on my part, if by that you mean near-mindedness, or an ungenerous attitude to their own attitude to their soul-destroying jobs and their wantonly uncomprehending customers. Because it's certainly not closed-mindedness on my part: I'm completely open to the idea that in an ideal world no accent would be more difficult or downright annoying than any other. It causes me even more anguish that my ears and brain refuse to go along with this idea. Or even with each other: attractive accents can be difficult (tho I don't see that Cork needs subtitles), and annoying ones plain sailing.

  11. @Amy I disagree with most of what you say. Causes of listeners' difficulty in understanding speakers are various, and in some cases the cause might well be (some feature of) the speaker's accent. That doesn't make the listener close-minded or indeed malicious in any way. When listeners fail to understand, do you think they choose to?

    There is accommodation on both sides, naturally, but by and large it is up to speakers to make their meaning clear. This is especially so when communication is part of the person's job. I agree with you, Amy, when you say that "rushing, and not enunciating consonants" are a problem.

  12. There are certainly people who choose not to understand or not to try to.

    Anyway, concerning the "rushing" and "being careless", that's maybe something one should be careful with. Usually, high-prestige varieties of a language are perceived to be clear and correct, while speakers of non-standard accents are said to be lazy in their pronunciation. Of course there is something like clear or slurred pronunciation, but reduced or skipped sounds (in unfair comparison to the standard) might as well be the standard of that variety.

    You can hear people describe an URP speaker as having a "cut-glass accent" even if he or she skips most of the unstressed vowels and a good deal of the consonants, has rather weakly ending diphthongs, nasalises a lot, doesn't aspirate voiceless stops or even voices the occasional voicelss consonant, and "drawls" prevocalic consonants.

    Then somebody with a strong Cockney accent with a precise diphthong in water, followed by a clear glottal stop, and finishing with a vowel that's much less diffuse and central than a mainstream schwa is described as a careless speaker.

  13. Lipman, perhaps you should take the hyphen out of "cut-glass".
    High-grade RP is quite typically cut to much about the same extent as high-grade cocaine, and that is not the only respect in which it's as fragile as glass.

    I confess that in my earliest youth, when prescriptivism reigned supreme and I believed all the above-mentioned eyewash about the "corruption" rife in "sloppy" accents "degrading" the English language, I used to argue that the Cockney of which you speak sounded so much like hard work that it was the poor souls who spoke it that needed a break, not the English language. Your 'water' is a prime example of the overarticulation of everything except the t, and even if that isn't exactly overarticulated, it is underarticulated with a mighty grunt of effort.

    Why on earth didn't they just give up the unequal struggle and speak RP? Ogden Nash was right: oh so effortlessly superior!

  14. @ Richard Sabey: "When listeners fail to understand, do you think they choose to?"

    The answer to that is: For many listeners, though not all, Yes. I do think they choose to. Faced with something new, they tune out.

    In a context such as this, "accent" can be seen as a social construct: the difficulty is not always with the sounds the speaker produces, but how much those sounds confound the listener's expectations. In a world filled with global communication (or, at any rate, attempted communication!), listeners who open their minds to the new, and who have patience, can understand far more than they think they can.

    I have as much difficulty over the phone as the next person. But I find that if I ask the speaker to slow down, and they comply, the difficulty often disappears completely. It's not a cure-all, of course, but it is a cure-one-heckuva-lot.

    I teach techniques such as this for a living, and for many years before this, worked as a telephone operator. I also live in a world where I have to spend hours in voicemail hell before I speak to a live customer service rep who in all likelihood did not grow up where I did. I stand by my remarks:

    A speaker's use of more fully enunciated consonants, and slowing down, works. And so does a listener's patience.

  15. Professor Wells may appreciate this view from the other side: a Scottish customer of the Caledonia Bank dealing with an English telephone operator.

  16. I wrote: "listeners who open their minds to the new, and who have patience, can understand far more than they think they can."

    By which I meant: "... can understand far more than they would otherwise have believed possible." Or something like that.

    So much for my own ability to communicate.

  17. Speaking about accents. Would anybody be so kind as to tell me what accent the ladies in this video speak: (wind it on to 1:15)
    My first guess was Scottish, but then after some consideration I thought it was more like Welsh. What do you think?

  18. I think that that video is very bizarre, and that those ladies are from the Liverpool area.

  19. I think it's not about the pronunciation and the way the customer care representatives talk, but it is about how well they get to serve their clients by giving them clear and accurate results to their concerns. And I think there are a lot of companies nowadays that have great customer service despite of language and accent barriers. It just takes a lot of understanding actually.

    When I had my vacation in France, I've encountered a call center agent because I had a concern with a certain product. But she really did a great job in handling my query and solved my concern successfully even though she has this French accent. So I guess that's what count the most.

    Anyways, you have a very informative post and nice blog. Thanks for the post!


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