How to Traverse the World of Accents

Mantra Roy /

Have you encountered patrons who speak perfect English but with accents you are not familiar with? Have you asked them to repeat themselves so that you can address their queries? Have you felt distressed about not being able to reach your patrons half-way when it comes to their accented English?

In such situations, patrons have no problem with the English language; so, there is no need to find a colleague who will be able to communicate with them. It is often a question of being able to hear and understand the different sound. For example, in an American accent, "con" in "condition" is pronounced as "cun" with "o" as a short vowel sound.

But in India, people say "cawn" for "con" in "condition". So, when a patron from India uses the word, it may not be possible for some of us to understand what is being said. However, instead of trying to cooperate, if we make the error of projecting the attitude that the patron should learn to speak English properly, then we will alienate the patron and other patrons like them. It's like refusing to understand a New Yorker accent in Florida or in rural Texas. How will your patron respond if you express your inability to meet their need just because her English sounds different than what you are familiar with?

In many industries, such as publishing, engineering, and business, where staff and employees frequently interact with people from different parts of the world, it is often emphasized that employees take the effort to understand and engage with different accents of spoken English and should prepare themselves to be able to succeed in their business with global partners. Since service to community members forms the foundation of our institution, it is almost imperative that we pay heed to the difference in accents and prepare ourselves to engage with our patrons better.

Cultural sensitivity is key to such services that help librarians reach out to patrons who require specialized communication services. WebJunction's Spanish Language Outreach Program on reaching out to Spanish speaking patrons illustrates how cultural awareness and sensitivity aid librarians to provide services better by meeting the language needs of patrons. Another WebJunction article discusses how several libraries design language services and resources to help immigrant and international patrons.

A parallel concern revolves around understanding different accents of spoken English to be able to reach out to various patrons and help them access your library resources and services. So, a resource such as The Speech Accent Archive can guide you to learn how the same word can be pronounced differently. Like any orientation in sound, this resource will demonstrate the different sounds of accents so that you ‘hear' how people from different places pronounce the same word differently. If not anything else, such awareness will alert us to the existence of varied pronunciations of the same word. This awareness will increase cultural sensitivity among librarians as we interact with patrons who speak with accents different from ours.

Academic libraries sometimes struggle with reaching out to new students and scholars who come from different parts of the world and try to seek resources while pronouncing words in very unfamiliar ways. It is obvious that we cannot be prepared to recognize every single accent; but if we are aware that words can sound very different than what we are familiar with, then we will be prone to pay a lot more attention to how patrons say a word and therefore be able to help them promptly.

Do you conduct accent training programs for your staff at your library? What resources do you use? How have your services improved? What were your challenges? Please share with us so that we can learn how to engage with the world of accents better.