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Walking into a minefield of vowels

Walking into a minefield of vowels
Published on:
2nd April 2018

The effect of the South African English Accent on customer service

If your mother tongue is isiZulu, isiSotho or isiXhosa your first language will have a powerful effect on your English accent. It’s as if you are walking into a minefield of vowels which you simply don’t have in your vocal arsenal. A common feature of the South African languages is strong throat resonance. Voice is produced in the middle to back part of the mouth. This results in a deep, full, warm voice. But because of this, when English is spoken there is blurring of the forward, round English vowel sounds, such as er, ar, and or.

There are also big vowel differences. Most of the local languages have between 5 and 7 vowels, and these vowels are formed in the middle to back part of the mouth. English has 23 vowel sounds. Long and short English vowel pairs can be pronounced differently, e.g. ship/sheep; pot/port. But lip rounding is uncommon in the local languages, so forward rounded English vowels are pronounced as middle vowels. For example ‘work’ can be pronounced as ‘wek’ or ‘wuk’. There is also no ‘A as in man’ sound in the African languages so this ‘a‘ is pronounced as ‘e’ or ‘u’. The vowel differences often result in communication problems, especially when different words can sound the same – eg much/march/match or paper/pepper.

This is called mother tongue influence. You might say “So what?”. But it does matter to a young person applying for a job in the customer service arena. If you can’t speak English clearly and intelligibly you are at a disadvantage, with English being the language of choice for business generally and particularly in customer service environments. Only 10% of South Africans have English as their mother tongue, and a young person who has not spoken much English at home or school is suddenly expected to speak English at a mother tongue level.

It can take many years to learn to speak English well if you weren’t taught well at school, which is often the case in South Africa. One way for first time job applicants and new employees to play catch up is to take an accent modification course. A good example produced in South Africa is the Accent Labs e-learning course. The course not only shows you how to pronounce all the English vowels and consonants, but also helps with your audio processing of English, ie the course improves your ability to understand the spoken English that you are listening to. The course was developed on the Moodle e-learning platform and includes a number of innovative recording and playback features.