Is your foreign accent holding you back? | Kamila Sitwell

Learning a LanguageYou are a smart, educated professional with a wealth of experience and deep industry knowledge.

You have valuable insights and a point of view that would lead to important conversations in boardroom meetings and industry conferences. You are an expert on your subject matter and you should consider public speaking to accelerate your career.

Except, you never will. You rarely speak out at those stakeholder meetings, you never raise your hand at industry conferences and you will never, ever volunteer to speak publically!

Most people dread public speaking but you have a greater challenge to overcome than most. You are a non-native English speaker and you fear you will be judged by your accent, not the content of your presentation. I’ve been paranoid for years that those annoying mispronunciations, plus my heavy accent, will make my speech sound grotesque. Sadly, it’s not just my insecurities that made me feel this way. There is growing evidence that foreign accents are often associated with low intelligibility and negative overall personal evaluations (Flege 1984). Bias, unconscious or not, tends to creep into the decision making that will determine our fate as entrepreneurs and aspiring executives.

I often sensed that when people hear my Eastern European accent for the first time, they automatically deduct 100 IQ points, but throw in 50 for cuteness. Yes, cuteness. According to research, a woman speaking with an accent is often perceived as immature and in need of guidance, especially if she struggles to get the right expressions or mispronounces words in heated debate. “Cute” is frequently quoted as the key word that comes to mind when listening to a foreign colleague presenting in English. But “cute” makes it very difficult to succeed in a corporate environment, especially when one aspires to positions of power and influence.

Entrepreneurs and executives with foreign accents are passed over for start-up funding and management positions far more than their competitors. They are perceived as “less credible” which in turn conjures up prejudices of lacking “political skill,” as well as “the ability to be perceptive and influence others.” (Huang). Ironic, considering all the years of hard work, perseverance and dedication it took to master the language in the first place.

So if you are one of the nearly 8 million foreign-born residents in the UK, and have the ambition to succeed, there is only one course of action. A foreign accent can be a show-stopper if your speech is indeed difficult to understand. If so, further language and elocution lessons combined with dedicated practice are an absolute must. But remember, it’s fluency and comprehension you should be after rather than accent elimination. Accent is statistically the very last skill to attain native-likeness and thus the hardest to change.

Once clear communication is not an issue, you can turn your accent into a positive by pointing out the diverse perspectives and cultural background you bring to the table. Pre-empt your job interviewers’ concerns about your ability to deliver results which they might subconsciously link to your accent. When asked the inevitable “tell me about your weaknesses…” you can jokingly state the obvious that speaking with an accent doesn’t mean thinking with an accent and be quick to emphasise your work achievements. No interviewer would ever admit that prejudice has crossed his/her mind as it usually happens on a deeply subconscious level. Openly discussing the matter forces a more conscious evaluation. Most companies these days acknowledge the value of diversity, so ensure you leverage that accent to your benefit rather than deny its existence.

Kamila SitwellAbout the author:

Kamila Sitwell (née Malkowska) came to the UK from Poland in the mid-90’s to get her business degree. Despite her limited knowledge of English and lack of finances she believed that “miracles happen in London…if you work hard”.

Between 1997-2001 she did indeed work hard with many part-time jobs while studying. In 2000 she compted her BA (Hons) from University of Glamorgan and subsequently gained her MBA. Qualified and fluent in 4 languages, she was ready to launch her career. But unable to obtain the necessary sponsorship, in January 2002 Kamila said goodbye to her British long-term sweetheart and returned to Poland to work for Tchibo, leading coffee manufacturer and retailer. Despite rapid career progression in Warsaw, she never stopped dreaming about succeeding in the UK.

When Poland joined the EU in May 2004 Kamila could finally return to the UK and reunite with her boyfriend. Soon she was back in London working for a retail consultancy. She married Vincent in 2006 and they have two boys – Oscar and Dexter.

A few years went by, work was good but unfulfilling. Although winning corporate awards, Kamila didn’t feel that the big companies’ culture and rigid processes would ever lead to real change in the category or the company.

However, she discovered a real passion for the Eating Out market while working at Britvic and PepsiCo. With her extensive knowledge of the soft drink category dynamics, Kamila decided to go it alone.

Dexos Drinks (the company named by joining her sons’ names) makes gourmet customisable beverages for consumers who don’t like to be told how to take their drinks and will be launched in Spring 2017.

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