Accent Reduction And How To Speak Global English : Rough Translation Heather Hansen used to teach people to speak "perfect" English. Until she realized that so-called "bad English" might be a better way to communicate.

How To Speak Bad English

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You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR.


ABBE: Hey, everyone. I'm American, and today, I'm here to help you sound like one too. I'm going to talk about seven easy things...

WARNER: As any YouTube language video or language learner or teacher will attest, the process of remaking yourself in another language is about a lot more than grammar or pronunciation. It's a million little things.

SOPHIE: A guy from Arizona, he teased me for not knowing what granola was.

WARNER: This is a listener from Sweden.

SOPHIE: And I looked it up later and was like, it's not granola here; it's muesli.

WARNER: A while back, we asked you to send us your stories of teaching and learning English. Some of you shared your joy at discovering a side of your personality that English had unlocked.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Now that I mastered it to a certain degree, I really feel like I am more open. I think I may have had a different journey to finding my voice if I did not learn English.

WARNER: Others of you shared your concern at learning this language over others.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm in the generation of children in Nigeria who speak English as a first language and have difficulty speaking their native language. There's a lot of shame for us.

WARNER: And you talked about your frustration when even after you'd learned English and spoke it with fluency...

DULCE: I don't know if it's because of my accent or my pronunciation.

WARNER: Your English was seen as not good enough.

DULCE: The people say like, what? Say again. So I have to repeat it. And then they are like, oh, this. And then they said the word that I thought that I was saying, and I thought that I was saying it right. And I'm like, yeah, that.

WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION, the show with far-off stories that hit close to home. I'm Gregory Warner. If you were to add up all the people who learned English in a classroom, that's a much larger group than those who were born into English.

HEATHER HANSEN: Those of us who were born into the language are hugely, hugely outnumbered. And that's why I argue that we do not own this language.

WARNER: Today on the show, we meet an English-language instructor who is pushing back against the kind of basic axiom of her profession - saying that good English might be a bad thing for the world.

HANSEN: If you think that English that has some errors in it is bad, maybe that's the new good.

WARNER: So what does it really mean to speak good English? And who gets to decide? That's coming up, plus more of your stories, when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.


WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. There are all kinds of reasons people take a job teaching English - maybe to travel somewhere or stay a while in a new place. I have done that myself back in the day. But for Heather Hansen, teaching English was a calling, one that crystallized for her when she was a college student studying German in Austria.

HANSEN: And I remember almost making myself sick about having to speak in German and then standing in front of the class, battling through, can't find the words, and I'm not pronouncing things correctly. And I'm - all I'm thinking is, if I could just do this in English, they would all know how smart I am. So that was really what put me on the course for working with language and helping people with language because I thought, we've got to help them so they can express themselves better, so they can get the respect they deserve, so they can avoid embarrassment. And that was why I got into doing what I'm doing.

WARNER: So a few years later, she moved to Singapore to work with pilots at Singapore Airlines

HANSEN: To help them deliver better public announcements to their passengers.

WARNER: In an English that was clear and inspired trust, which, according to the language school that Heather worked for, was...

HANSEN: A standardized English, an English that everyone in the world can understand. And of course, that English would be the British English variety.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm thinking of moving.


WARNER: This is one of the pronunciation practice CDs that Heather used in her course. It's known as received pronunciation, or queen's English.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm not sure. I might move to Manchester. Um, or I may go to Cambridge or maybe Marseilles or...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Laughter) Well, don't call the removers until you make up your mind.

WARNER: When she arrived in Singapore - this was 2006 - she realized that it was not necessarily the passengers of the plane that were asking for this. The Singaporean government had launched a national campaign to discourage people from using the local English-based creole known as Singlish.


KAI YING: The house is so big and so much cars.


ROBIN: The house is indeed very big, and there are many cars here.

WARNER: This is a clip from a kind of public service grammar ad aimed at ironing out Singlish grammar, which is borrowed from various languages including Cantonese, Malay, English and others.


ROBIN: I believe my friend paid over 20 million for this good-class bungalow.

KAI YING: Wow. Goodness graceful me.


ROBIN: Don't you mean, goodness gracious me?


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Let's connect. Let's speak good English.

WARNER: The government campaign, which is still ongoing, is called Speak Good English.

HANSEN: Which - I find the name a little bit ironic because I - the whole time, I'm like, shouldn't it be speak English well or - you know? (Laughter).

WARNER: And the Speak Good English campaign was not just about grammar - also pronunciation and anything else that might prevent Western speakers of English who do business in Singapore from understanding Singaporeans.

Was it a fun job, or was it satisfying?

HANSEN: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Yeah. And really, you just sit there in the dark because you think you're doing the right thing, and people are getting what they're asking for. They come to you saying, I want to sound like a native speaker, and you say, OK, sounds good; let's go, and here's the book, here's the CDs. And yeah, everybody's happy.

WARNER: Heather was good at this work, really good. She was a hawk for grammar errors, patient with accent reduction. And she loved it so much that she started her own company based in Singapore offering English language instruction to multinational companies, which meant that she started talking with clients about what they actually needed.

HANSEN: Yeah. It's interesting. What I was seeing with my clients wasn't matching what I was told to believe. I was told to believe these people cannot function in an international environment if they do not speak proper global English of a standard of American or British; they have to master that in order to survive. And yet I started meeting really high-level professionals who did not speak that way, who were doing just fine, dealing with very high-level business all over the world. And I thought, you know, how necessary is it, really? Is this really needed? Why am I teaching this?

WARNER: So Heather, the way we found you was through a TEDx Talk that you gave in 2018, and we'll of course have a link to that on the website. But in it, you mention a body of research that completely struck me, and I wanted to tell everybody about it when I heard it. It has to do with what happens to communication when non-native speakers are talking together in English and a native speaker enters that conversation.

HANSEN: Well, what the research is showing is that when the non-native speakers are together alone, they're actually doing just fine. So we have a Singaporean, an Indonesian, a Korean, a German and a French and someone from Finland, and they're all in a room, you know, negotiating a contract. And they're all doing great, and then the American walks in, and that's where the misunderstandings start to occur.

WARNER: I'm kind of imagining a Zoom with everybody else in the world except the Brits and the Americans, apparently, and everybody's communicating fine even in their, quote-unquote, "bad English." And then the native speaker joins the conversation, and what happens, actually? The general level of understanding and exchange of ideas starts to sink.

HANSEN: Exactly. And this is also part of the problem - is this whole concept of native and non-native. And there are a lot of people in the world who are trying to get rid of these terms as well because when we say native speaker, we're generally referring to the Western native speaker of - the Brit, the American, Australian. But why aren't Singaporeans considered native speakers? They grow up and are educated in English. And yet Singapore English...

WARNER: Or Indians.

HANSEN: Yeah, or Indian English speakers. If you ask them - what's your native language? - they'll say, English. But they are not globally recognized as native speakers. What I have been saying a lot and even as I'm writing now in my next book, I talk a lot about the people who are born into the language, and you have all of the privilege of that that's attached to that. And then there are people who are learning English in the classroom. The problem is those are mouthfuls.

WARNER: How many people in the world were born into English? How many people in the world learned it in the classroom?

HANSEN: I base my numbers on estimates given by David Crystal, who's literally - he literally wrote the Encyclopedia of the English Language from Cambridge. And he was willing to suggest now that the people who were born into the language number about 400 million, whereas people who were learning English in a classroom were numbering close to 2 billion. So we are hugely, hugely outnumbered, and something needs to change. And I think that that starts with educating the 400 million to start communicating better with the 2 billion instead of trying to make the 2 billion sound like the 400 million. It seems like we're doing something backwards here.

WARNER: Heather started to wonder, why was it that English teachers around the world were spending so much time teaching non-Americans a bunch of sports idioms for sports they didn't even play?

HANSEN: Moving the goalposts - I mean, why do we say that? Move the goalposts. Touch base. But you know what's really hard is that if you ask the average American - how would you say that otherwise? - I'm not really sure.

WARNER: Wouldn't it be easier to teach Americans when they enter global business meetings to check their idioms at the door?

HANSEN: I mean, we use touch base as if it's normal English. We don't even think of the connection to baseball and touching the base. So how do we translate that into real English? I will contact you. I will speak with you. I will send you an email next week. I will call you next week. We forget even how to translate it. So there are a lot of...

WARNER: I will get in touch. Is that...

HANSEN: So what does that mean, to get in touch? If you take the words individually and try to translate that to another language - in touch - what does that mean? You're going to touch me? Like (laughter), so we have to really consider as native speakers how we use the language.

WARNER: Well, the flip side of this research is somehow even more surprising to me that when that native speaker is not there, communication goes up. So what skills do those who learned English in the classroom - what skills do they have that those who were born into English often lack?

HANSEN: So the speakers who are growing up learning English in the classroom, they're approaching the language in a completely different way. They use simple English. They usually are not using a lot of idioms. They aren't using terminology that's really high-level. They all are able to adapt and fit and have conversations at the same level. And they're listening to people more carefully because they want to make sure that they understand what's being said. In these global environments, we have to stop for a second and think about what's behind the words, what's behind the message. The language itself is simply a tool, and it isn't always going to be a perfect expression of the meaning or the feelings or the ideas that the person is trying to get across. And that's what the native speaker lacks.


WARNER: And so the native speaker, or the person born into the language, was sort of missing out on conversations and collaborations and exchanges of ideas that might happen when they're not there.

HANSEN: I think a lot of what's happening in global settings has a lot more to do with that power differential, that the native English speaker is seen as the owner of the language. They walk in; suddenly, my language isn't good enough. I would rather be quiet than make mistakes, so I'm just not going to talk anymore because I'm too shy to speak up. And in these business contexts, I think that adds a new level of pressure. Suddenly, anything you say could be judged by a boss. It could impact your promotion. It could have a lot of lasting implications when you make those big mistakes.

WARNER: In your emails and voicemails to us, you talked a lot about this fear of making mistakes versus the costs of staying quiet.

NESTOR RODRIGUEZ: My name is Nestor Rodriguez, and I teach Latin American literature at the University of Toronto.

WARNER: Nestor told us about leading a dissertation defense. This was back when he was a young professor.

RODRIGUEZ: The discussion was pretty heated, and when it seemed to be fading off, I asked candidly, does anybody else want to intervene?

WARNER: One of the professors leaned back in his chair.

RODRIGUEZ: ...And repeated in a dramatic mock-British accent, intervene. After hearing John Milton reincarnated mocking my plebeian accent, I could not complete my duties.


SAFIYA: Hi. This is Safiya (ph). For 30 years, I've worked at IBM. We were rolling out a new software, and in the big development meeting, I kept referring to it as version 1.1. Afterward, a colleague came to my office and said, Safiya, it's version, not virgin. I was very grateful for his correction. We laughed together. The fact that my American colleagues took the time to help me express my ideas made me feel that what I had to say was valued and that they wanted to include me in the conversation.


WARNER: And on the other side of this, some of you shared your experience as teachers or as native speakers rethinking your role in an international conversation.

STEPHANIE: Hello, ROUGH TRANSLATION. My name is Stephanie (ph). So I previously was an English teacher in South Korea. One story that sticks out is when I was in a guest house with a group of individuals, they were speaking English as the common denominator. However, when I entered the conversation, and they asked where I was from, and I told them the U.S.A., they all hesitated and just kind of froze up. And I was like, what is the problem? And they said, well, you're a native speaker. They were nervous to speak in my presence. That threat or, I guess, intimidation of being a native English speaker caused them pause.

WARNER: So after running her own company for a number of years, Heather decided that she was going to be a different kind of English language instructor. When clients approached her to get their accents reduced, she'd ask them questions.

HANSEN: They'll come and say, I want to sound like you; I need to sound like a native speaker. And I'll say, well, what does that mean to you? What kind of native speaker? And then they might say, oh, well, I don't know; you know, I just want to sound more like you. And then I'll say, OK, well, what is it about the way that I speak that you really like? And they'll say, oh, well, it's so clear, or, I love how much the intonation, it changes; it sounds so nice; it goes up and down. And so we start realizing that, oh, OK, so it isn't really the accent then, is it? It's more about the way it sounds, the confidence, the melody, the clarity.

And we start to move quite far away from this idea of - I want to sound like you; I want your accent - to them kind of realizing that, no, wait, yeah, you're right, actually, I just want them to understand me; I want to be able to express myself without fear of failure; I want to belong; I want to get respect. Basically, I made this shift from the very subjective labeling of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, to focus on connection and not perfection. But as long as you're communicating and getting your point across, and people are understanding you, this is when I believe that your bad English is actually perfect.


WARNER: Heather's quest to find takers for her brand of bad English and more of your stories when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.


WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner.


ALEXANDER SMIRNOFF: Hello. My name is Alexander Smirnoff (ph). I'm 18 and from the beautiful country of Russia. There is a...

WARNER: If you were to Google accent reduction, you will get millions of videos promising a new you.


SMIRNOFF: However, as you can probably tell, I don't really have a hard Russian accent or anything like that. So what did I do to get rid of it? I think before I tell you the...

WARNER: These videos range from the cheerfully optimistic to the downright mean.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Now say curtain. Cor-ten (ph) - don't say it like that. Now say curtain.

WARNER: For Heather Hansen, she decided she didn't want to be part of the tactics...



WARNER: ...Of the multibillion-dollar English language industry.

HANSEN: Well, in some ways, I think the industry exists because it can shame people into believing that they aren't good enough without speaking in a certain way. That's the privilege and the power that we have over the language. Language has always been a weapon. It always has been. Colonizers went in. First thing they did was force the language on populations. If you didn't speak that language, then you are not going to have any kind of status in that colony.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I am originally from Sri Lanka, so naturally, I am going to talk about my time back at my homeland. Were under the rule of England up until 1948. This is where the relationship with English started up, but the relationship gets a bit strange because we learn English from the very elementary school to the high school. We call it (unintelligible) ingrisi (ph), or we translate it into broken English if someone is speaking English in nonfluent way. And in the context (ph) of people, you shouldn't (ph) put the language up on a pedestal because some consider it to be something that you use to show you are in a higher class.


WARNER: Almost as soon as Heather decided to stop fixing people's accents, she ran into some realities of the business world.

HANSEN: So this is - this was the HR of a Fortune 250 company headquartered in Michigan, but global company. And their HR director called me and said, we have this acting CFO - acting because he hadn't been offered the full job yet. They wanted to offer him the full job, but there was this really big problem, and that problem was that he had a really heavy French accent. Nobody can understand him, and we don't know what to do. And can you help him to sound more American so we can understand him better? OK, I said, well, could you send me his CV? You know, I'd like to talk to him.

And I'm sitting there thinking in my mind, you know, a Frenchman doesn't get up to the level of CFO in an American Fortune 250 company without having quite a bit of international experience. And sure enough, I see his CV - 10 years in London, eight years in Asia. I thought there is no way that he's unintelligible. And sure enough, I get him on the phone, and he speaks nice, clear English, more intelligible than any Frenchman I've ever worked with. I understand every word he says. Who is having difficulty understanding him? Well, people in America who had never heard a French accent before. And he's in a very important role. He had to do financial statements publicly. There were - the press and media was there transcribing what he was saying and publishing his words. And at the time, they were only getting about 60% of what he was saying correct.

WARNER: The CFO was the one communicating the financial information of the company to the public, so the stock price could hang on his words and whether people understood them correctly. And so the company told Heather they needed her to get rid of this guy's accent. Otherwise, they could not give him the job.

HANSEN: And it went against everything in my bones because I was sitting there like, oh, but it should be good enough. But the way it should be versus the way it is is not always in sync, right? So this was a tough situation.

WARNER: Yeah, it's a tough situation. I mean, so how would you - with your newfound thinking about English, how would you ideally have wanted to solve this communication problem?

HANSEN: Ideally, I would have loved to sit down the entire leadership of that company and do some programs for them in how to tune your ear and better understand accented English.

WARNER: I think you've called this accent recognition rather than accent reduction. But what is accent recognition? I mean, how do you actually teach that?

HANSEN: Well, if I was, for example, going to work with an American who wanted to come and live in Singapore, I'd have them listening to Singapore radio, talk radio in English.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Mr. Xi also reiterated that bossing others around or meddling in their internal affairs...

HANSEN: ...And listening to how people sound, although that isn't even ideal because it's not the reality of what you hear on the street. It's, like, the pretty broadcast variety of English. It's the higher standard. But it still is accented. And we would be looking at what languages are influencing the English that's spoken here, and why then do the sounds change? So why is it that they don't have a really strong distinction between -eh and -ah?

Well, in Singapore and Malaysia they've created a separate vowel sound that's somewhere in between. So it's like, one men, two men, and it sounds the same. It's not one man and two men. They have this sound right in between that they use, and, I mean, we have all the linguistic research to show it. So there's a lot that we can learn about different accents and what sounds change and why they change. And once you know the code, it's just a little puzzle. It becomes fun, and your brain starts trying to figure it out instead of turning off and ignoring or judging.

WARNER: Accent recognition is not always that easy. Some accents are just harder to understand for outsiders, harder still over a bad phone line or a bad Zoom connection. But Heather says it is still a lot easier to train the ear to hear new accents than the tongue to speak them.

HANSEN: It's basically reverse engineering. What you say this way, they say that way. And that's why recognition is easier because we aren't trying to teach you a new way to speak. We're just trying to teach you a new way to listen and understand. And that's a lot easier than trying to break decades of habits around the way the muscles of your mouth are working. That's - it's very, very difficult. I don't think people realize how difficult it is to change the way that you speak.

Just, if you tried to start saying a sentence, and if I told you, every time you want to say a T-H, use a T. And you have to do that from now on. And it would be really hard for you to do. You would start thinking about it - I would start tinking about it, and ten, I could maybe tink and say tings differently. I have to completely...

WARNER: Tank you for that example. I...

HANSEN: (Laughter).

WARNER: You're so much better than I...

HANSEN: It's so hard, right? Can you imagine? And that's basically what people I'm working with are trying to do. And truly, T-H is one of the sounds that has no impact whatsoever on intelligibility. People can say a T-H as a duh, tuh, suh, zuh, anything, and we will always understand it, but it doesn't mean we'll accept it.


BRIGID FARRELL: Hi. My name is Brigid Farrell (ph). I speak a variety of English called Irish English, also known as Hiberno-English. And so when Irish people meet other English speakers, very often, they laugh at the fact that we don't pronounce T-H the way it should be pronounced in some words. So, for example, when we meet people, they will ask us to say things like 33 and a third. Now, I have to concentrate when I say that because if I say it naturally in Irish English, I would say turty tree and a turd (ph). So (laughter) it sounds like a very different thing.


KALI RAMU: Hey. You want to know about Singlish? Well, my name is Kali Ramu (ph), and I'm a second-generation Singaporean of Indian origin with a little bit of Chinese thrown in. My husband is Swiss, and he is the one who often teases me about my Singlish purely because it sounds so funny to him. I only switch to Singlish whenever I'm around other Singaporeans, even like my parents, just so that I feel more understood, welcomed, and it's just fun to be able to use it with other people who know.


WARNER: As for the French guy at the headquarters in Michigan, he did work with Heather, and she did a full "My Fair Lady" treatment on him. The transcripts of what he said in those press conferences went from 60% accuracy to 90.

Did he get his promotion?

HANSEN: As far as I know, yeah. Yeah. He finally did. They finally made him full CFO.

WARNER: What is your policy on correcting people's grammar? I'm curious. And I'm not thinking as a teacher, just more in real life.

HANSEN: I typically don't ever point out people's grammar. For me personally, I couldn't care less. If there's an error, I let it slide. I don't care. I understood what they meant. If there's a situation where it makes the message unclear, then I might ask a clarifying question, and I try to get them to explain a little bit more, but only if I've misunderstood.

WARNER: What about beauty? I mean, beauty is subjective. I understand that you're advocating for a kind of efficiency and a functionality of language that shouldn't be, you know, overly burdened by grammar rules. But, I mean, what about those who say, listen; you're endorsing a form of English that's good enough - kind of good enough for the world, and is it a - like, a dumbing down?

HANSEN: Yeah, and that's what people will argue, that we're dumbing down the language, where I would say it's not dumbing down in any way. We're actually simplifying. But your connection there to beauty, I find that very interesting and fascinating. Of course, we know there are studies out there that have shown, you know, women who wear makeup are going to progress further in work, right? And then we put that on to language and this idea of eloquence and, OK, yes, we have this bias towards wanting to listen to people who sound really good just like we want to look at people who are really beautiful. Does that mean that their ideas are better than the person who is ugly and can't speak eloquently? That's where we run into problems.

WARNER: So how do you have an unvarnished conversation?

HANSEN: Yeah. It's so difficult.

WARNER: And what makes it especially difficult, Heather says, is when our own biases get in the way. Heather tells me about this story of her own when her daughter came home from school in Singapore and told her that she'd forgotten her water bottle at school, but she told it to her in perfect Singlish.

HANSEN: And when I was kind of just blank stare at her, she goes, oh, sorry, Mommy; I forgot my water bottle at school. And it was like, oh, no, I understood you. I just didn't know how to respond in the moment

WARNER: What was going on when your daughter said that to you and - or - and then she had to code switch 'cause she saw your expression?


WARNER: What was your anxiety or your hesitation?

HANSEN: I think I was just shocked. I was just so surprised. I had never heard her speak like that before. And let's keep in mind, this must have been about 2012, so long after my awakening - right? - and understanding that of course people should speak so they belong, and they should sound how they like and this and that. But when it comes to your own child, suddenly, all those wonderful thoughts are out the window because you expect your children to sound like you. Your children are a reflection of you. It's like, no, no, no, no, no, this is the way we speak in our house.

WARNER: But then Heather worried that the whole, this is the way we speak in our house, was planting the first seed of the judgmental, this is right, this is wrong that she had worked so hard as a teacher to escape.

HANSEN: When you see your child speaking in a way that is so different from you, that's when you realize how much your language is part of your identity. And so what right do I have taking that away from other people and saying, no, you shouldn't sound like that; that's not proper; that's not right? Who am I to say that? And that's, I guess, the whole crux of the issue.


WARNER: Well, thanks, Heather. Thanks so much.

HANSEN: Thank you.


WARNER: We would love to know what you thought of this episode and if it brought up any stories of your own. And specifically here at ROUGH TRANSLATION, we have been thinking about language and the way it often comes up in family histories. Do you have a story about learning a language that is part of your ancestry or you feel like you needed to know to complete your identity? Have you made unexpected discoveries along the way? We would love to hear from you. You can send us a voicemail at


WARNER: Today's show was produced by Rhaina Cohen. Our editor is Luis Trelles. The ROUGH TRANSLATION team includes Jess Jiang, Justine Yan, Matt Ozug and Carolyn McCusker - additional editorial insight from Sana Krasikov and Robert Krulwich. The ROUGH TRANSLATION executive team is Neal Carruth, Didi Schanche, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann. Nicole Beemsterboer is our senior supervising producer. Mastering by Isaac Rodrigues. John Ellis composed music for our show with additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. Also, thanks to Sara Brasun (ph) and all of you who wrote in with your stories.

SOPHIE: Sophie.

DULCE: Dulce (ph).

SAFIYA: Safiya.

STEPHANIE: Stephanie.

CHANAKA: Chanaka (ph).

FARRELL: Brigid Farrell.

RAMU: Kali Ramu.

RODRIGUEZ: Nestor Rodriguez.

WARNER: And thanks to all of you who sent in stories that we could not include in this episode, but we read and listened to every one of them. Before you go, one more accent reduction tip.


SMIRNOFF: Listen to podcasts. Now, listen. I know podcasts are kind of weird, and I would never listen to them myself while learning English. However, a friend of mine who's also Russian and got rid of his accent told me that podcasts were lifesaving for him. And actually, I've started listening to podcasts now myself while, for example, going to the gym or for a run, and they're actually not as bad.

WARNER: Back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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