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The effects of accents on customer service

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The South African English accent is generally regarded as one of the most neutral in the world. Unfortunately, while this is true for first language English speakers, most South Africans do not have English as their first language. In fact, only 10% of the South African population speaks English as their first language, and yet virtually all customer service agents and front-line staff have to use English extensively in their jobs.

English is the language of preference in the customer service and sales environments. If your vital customer facing staff can’t speak English clearly and intelligibly then their careers are going to suffer. Research shows that not being able to understand the agent is the number one problem for customers calling in to their service providers.

The problem starts at school because a large proportion of Southern African matriculants do not have an adequate command of English. This is one of the greatest challenges facing our education systems, and it becomes a very real problem for young job seekers who have to express themselves in English in order to enter the job market.

As the demand for customer service and contact centre agents increases, more and more young people are needed to fill the gap. Unfortunately, sometimes the best candidates are not able to speak English clearly enough to work in the BPO industry.

How can these problems be resolved?

If your mother tongue is isiZulu, isiSotho, isiXhosa or any other of the Southern African languages your first language will have a powerful effect on your English accent.

A common feature of the Southern 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 (a, e, i, o, u) sound 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 industry.
If you can’t speak English clearly and intelligibly you are at a disadvantage. English is the language of choice for business generally and particularly in customer service environments. 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. 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.

If you would like to know more about their online course and the blended options that they offer please get in touch with Andy Quinan on +2783 460 6328, or email him at

Click here to visit their web site.




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