Listen to the audio version of this post here.


What goes through your mind when you hear someone talk and you notice they’re not a native speaker of English?

Curiosity? Suspicion? Apprehension? Do your barriers go up? Or do you lean in to learn more?

Amherst professor Ilan Stavans argues that in the same way immigrants expand our cuisine and our art, they also expand our language. American English is loaded with words that came to us from other places. In his upcoming book, The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language, Stavans describes our vocabulary as incredibly elastic, with new words being added all the time. And he encourages newcomers not to give up their accents.

I’ve been listening to lots of accents lately.

Maybe you noticed I was missing from your inbox the past few weeks? I’ve been dealing with my sweet husband’s health crisis, and it’s been a lot.

Long story, but after a bad fall and a fractured humerus, he’s been in the hospital, a rehab center, back to the hospital, and now back to rehab. The doctors are still sorting out everything that’s going on with him. And I’ve been with him most of every day for a month now.

Someday I’ll write my book about the health care system. (There’s a lot to say!)

One immediate impression: at Frank’s new home-away-from home, hardly anybody is a native-born American. The people taking care of him come from the Philippines, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

It’s like a symphony of accents!

Frank, with his musician’s ear, picks up new languages quickly; he speaks a smattering of several and he digs his conversations with the staff. I’m curious. What brought them here? And now that they are here, how do they feel about it? What would it be like to move to a new continent and set about fitting in?

Not everyone appreciates English spoken differently, of course.

It’s always been like that. Stavans harkens back to a battle between John Adams, worried about the American language “going to the dogs,” and Thomas Jefferson. Adams wanted to put a figurative fence around the language Americans had brought with them from Britain.

Jefferson was out to incorporate some vocabulary from the original Americans, like “kayak,” “tobacco,” and “Manhattan.” He also introduced the word “pedicure.” Thank God for that, right?

The Jeffersonian approach prevailed, and American English has been expanding ever since then. For the better, I’d say.

So … Don’t give up your accent?

That’s the advice Stavans offers. And I’ve said the same thing myself to many clients over the years. Relative newcomers often worry that when it comes to business, speaking English with an accent will hold them back.

If you only go by what you see on the news, there’s reason for concern. Hostility toward immigrants often fuels campaigns and rallies and legislation.

Get beyond the politics though, and it’s a different story, don’t you think? When it comes to that colleague down the hall (or on the Zoom screen), or the client we call, or the rep who calls on us … we’re more accepting at a minimum. And many of us are charmed by accented English.

It does help to slow down a tad, to put more space between phrases.

As I tell my clients, it can take American ears a moment to process what they’re hearing from someone with an unfamiliar speech pattern. Giving them a little time ups the odds for fruitful communication.

As listeners, we have a responsibility to make the effort to understand. And speakers have a responsibility to make themselves as clear as possible.

Non-verbal communication is huge.

Eye contact is a challenge for those from cultures where it’s considered inappropriate or even rude. In American business culture, we read steady, direct eye contact as a sign of sincerity and we tend to distrust those who avoid looking us in the eye.

Adapting to that can take some practice. It’s worth the effort.

And you can’t beat a natural smile for connecting with an audience, whether you’re talking to one person or a roomful, however different your pronunciation might sound to them. We buy ourselves a lot of goodwill the moment the corners of our mouth turn up and our eyes crinkle.

Bottom line? I believe we can all get along and communicate comfortably if we all make a little effort and give each other a little grace.

I look forward to hearing how you feel.