Communication breakdown – why is that?

When there is a break in communication, what is to blame? Is it one’s accent? Or pronunciation? Or even vocabulary or grammar choices?

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Although making appropriate vocabulary and grammar choices can definitely aid – or hinder – communication, most learners of English tend to blame their accent for any communication mishaps they come to face.

In today’s world, where we have access to a ton of information at our fingertips, it’s no secret that there are multiple varieties of English spoken by native and non-native speakers alike.

Go straight to the culprit

My experience

My teacher in Middle School used a British English textbook in class – even though she rarely spoke a word in the Queen’s language herself.

In High School, I suspect the version we studied was the North-American English. Again, I wouldn’t really know, as this teacher also taught us in her native Portuguese.

In both cases we were being taught using some version of the grammar-translation method, where focus was given to grammatical structures and meaning was conveyed through translation. And even though I can appreciate that this method has helped many to learn a foreign language, it did not help me. 

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However, through movies and TV series with subtitles, I was sort of aware of the melody of Hollywood; not that I would have been able to discern between different regional accents within the USA, but I knew when something sounded American or English.

My seeming ignorance of accents and dialects – allied to my ignorance of the English language itself – was what made it really easy for me to decode the infamous Australian English accent. Needless to say that there’s more to the down-under accent than Crocodile Dundee. Since I didn’t really have any assumptions of what English should sound like, it made perfect sense to say things like ‘mate’ /maɪt/ instead of /meɪt/, or ‘day’ /daɪ/ instead of /deɪ/. It was also only natural to drop the last /r/ of words such as ‘brother’ and ‘chair’.

Australian English was clear as day and soon other variations of English were too: New Zealand’s, South Africa’s, Britain’s, Canadian’s, North-American’s… all very obviously different from one another. And why not add German’s, Dutch’s, French’s, Spanish’s and Brazilian’s to the mix?

The accent I used to have most trouble with was that from Scotland. When I first saw Braveheart I am sure I missed half of the movie because I had no idea what Mel Gibson was saying and – since it was in Australia – there were no subtitles available. It took me a rewatch to begin to understand it.

The “culprit”

So while accents do play a part in explaining why people might have issues communicating with others, it is not a phenomenon restricted to learners of English. It is not even restricted to English at all. You can ask anyone: Canandian French and French bear great differences, Spanish from Latin America is different from that of Spain, and even within South America the Spanish spoken varies country by country.

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But, for proficient speakers of English, different accents – while they may demand closer attention – do not necessarily impede communication. What most frequently does is pronunciation.

‘Tomato’ may be /təˈmeɪˌtoʊ/ or /təˈmɑːtəʊ/, but it can’t be any different than that. It can’t be TOmato. Nor can it be tomaTO. If one says /təʊmeɪˌtə/ or /təʊmɑːtə/, the result is equally unsuccessful. Yes, it is true that there are variations in pronunciation within isolated sounds, words and even sentences, but there is only so much that can actually vary.

  1. Stressed syllables and stressed words
  2. Phonemes
  3. Connected speech

Though we are not going to delve into each of these categories in this text, let’s examine the examples I’ve provided and “label” them:

  1. Saying TOmato or toMAto or tomaTO is a shift in stress within the word – syllable stress.
  2. Saying /təʊmeɪˌtə/ instead of /təˈmeɪˌtoʊ/ (tomato) is an error in a phoneme, that is, a sound.
  3. In the song “I say tomato and you say tomato”, what we hear is /wənjə/ or /wənʤjə/, not ‘and you’. This is a feature of connected speech.

You might be wondering which of the three is the ‘real issue’ and, truth be told, a little bit of each one of them. In terms of speaking, definitely stress and phoneme. In terms of listening, connected speech.

Maybe next time, before we automatically blame our communication breakdown on our ‘accents’, we should stop and really consider whether we are saying what we think we’re saying. Because the difference between ‘think’ and ‘sink’ could be sink or swim. *wink*

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