I hear complaints about getting phone responses—especially on Help lines—from people for whom English is not a first language. I confess: I’m guilty of the same complaint. People whom I might be able to understand in person are sometimes very difficult to understand on the phone.
I wonder about the selection of Help desk personnel. Are they interviewed by native English speakers in order to deal with us who are native English speakers? I fear they are hired by another ESL person who cannot accurately judge their pronunciation skills. The helpers are probably hired for their technical skills, which are important, but only if that expertise can be clearly communicated to the helpees.
Or perhaps they should require their workers to watch American television. Television has been the great leveler in pronunciation in our country in the last 60 years. Identifying people as to their U. S. region of origin by their accents is no longer easy. We tend to imitate what we hear, and if we watch and listen to television more than to our neighbors, we will speak the “general American” speech that we hear on television.
I grew up saying “Flar-uh-da” for a southern state and “ar-unge” for the fruit that grows there. I spoke of my “free-unds” and often “wee-unt” places with them, pretty much putting two syllables in both friends and went. Because my mother had eight siblings, I had many “aints” and uncles. My Aunt Lola Mae was “Aint Mae” to me till she died when I was 63. Certain habits from our childhood do not disappear—nor should they.
I have friends whose culture is to pronounce aunt as “Ahnt,” which sounds much more elegant to me than my traditional pronunciation. At other times, however, they can lapse into Ebonics that I can hardly follow.
On my first LST trip to Brazil, one of my readers sounded totally American, with no Portuguese accent. She had learned English on her own by watching and listening to American movies and songs. She did not have a local teacher who imparted his or her poor pronunciation as do many who study English in their own countries.
So, feeling very tolerant of those ESL people who are trying to help me with my wireless router, or my computer, or my airline reservations, how do I handle the situation? I thank them for their help, hang up, and dial again, optimistically hoping to get someone I can understand. Occasionally, that works.
So far I’ve restrained myself from asking, “Don’t you have any American television shows to watch? If you’d watch TV shows like Americans do, maybe I could understand you!”
But that time may not be long in coming.