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A Simple Thank You

The operations team had been under great strain to increase production, reduce costs and improve efficiency. In 8 months, they managed to put systems in place that had turned the tide; the goals set by the top management in Seoul were finally within reach. Time for some celebration and reward…Jeong-hun wanted to recognize the team’s accomplishment and show his appreciation with a Pizza Party. As CFO, he made the decision to spend the money and then told the front-line American manager his idea. Blank stare. 

Nothing. No recognition. He tried it again, “Make a Pizza party”. Still nothing. 

Fourteen months living in this country, working 10-hour days, with his head down, looking at facts and figures, talking only with his counterpart and senior management in S. Korea, in Korean, had not allowed Jeong-hun much of a chance to practice English. His interaction with the American staff was limited both by workload and by his own trepidation, fear, embarrassment, reticence and humiliation. Now, when he wanted to communicate his happiness and appreciation, he couldn’t.

This was the tipping point for Jeong-hun. When he told his wife about his ordeal that only ended when he wrote the word P-I-Z-Z-A on a piece of paper, they both felt humiliated. She took action. Through networking, Hye-jin learned about American English Right Now and called. We set up our first meeting and she told me the story. “Can you help my husband with his accent?”  “Sure”, I said. “Let’s start this week. Accent reduction is the first thing we’ll tackle.” 

At that first meeting, we worked on was increasing Jeong-hun’s awareness of two common pronunciation errors made by South Koreans: mispronouncing the /p/ and /b/ sounds, and mispronouncing /z/ and /dʒ/. For /p/ and /b/ sounds, the lips and tongue are in the same position however, /p/ is a voiceless consonant (vocal cords do not vibrate) and /b/ is a voiced consonant (vocal cords vibrate).  While /z/ and /dʒ/ are both voiced consonant sounds, the position of both the tip and sides of the tongue are different. 

What did that mean in practical terms? For Jeong-hun, P-I-Z-Z-A was pronounced B-I-J-J-A! To an untrained American ear, that was just an unintelligible collection of sounds and NOTHING that the American manager could understand. Accent reduction needed to occur in order for Jeong-hun to communicate with his staff. 

We used a mirror and voice recorder app to see and hear the problem. And then, he practiced. Repeatedly, he practiced. And practiced some more. The goal was not to eliminate his accent, only to reduce it enough that he could be understood.

Jeong-hun’s awareness of his DANGER ZONES for mispronunciation has helped him focus his efforts when pronouncing these words and sounds. He still sits in his office alone, swirling in numbers and spreadsheets, speaking primarily in Korean with Corporate, having minimum interaction with the American staff. The difference, however, is that for 3 hours a week, Jeong-hun works with me, practicing his Business English, stretching his vocabulary, hearing corrections to his word-choice errors and mispronunciations (something his underlings would NEVER think of doing!). Slowly, his confidence has increased as his Business English has improved. His staff sees his effort at improving his English and they are more willing to make the effort to listen better themselves. 

Lesson: 

1. It is never too late to work on your accent. Find someone you trust to help you, correct you, celebrate with you when you improve!

2. Reducing your accent helps Americans listen longer and be more willing to try to understand you. 

3. Pick those 25-50 words that are necessary at work or with your child’s school or your religious home or at the doctor’s office; pronounce them well.

4. Know which American English sounds are most difficult for speakers of your native language. These are your “Danger Zones”. Be more aware of them.

The best part of this story is that now, Jeong-hun can “say” a simple THANK YOU by throwing his staff a P-I-Z-Z-A Party!  Woo hoo!

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