Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Carolyn Cooper | American accent needed for job

Published:Sunday | September 4, 2016 | 9:00 AM

Last Tuesday, one of my idle friends sent me an ad from the Classifieds section of The Gleaner. It was listed under Vacancies General and went like this: "Are you able to speak with an American accent? Are you tech savvy and fast on the computer? Experienced tele-customer service/sales representatives needed to work at a contact centre in St Catherine. Applicants are required to submit their resume along with a 30 seconds video using their best American accent telling us why they are the best candidates for the job. Email resume and video at Telescopeforce@gmail.com".

Just in case applicants were a little slow and didn't get it, best American accent was highlighted in boldface. Potential applicants who can't speak with an American accent were being clearly advised to waste no time trying for the job. What a thing! In Jamaica you have to have an American accent to get work. I suppose it's really an acting job and actors have to be able to learn all sorts of accents. But still!

I guess the reasoning goes something like this: Most of the customers doing business via the contact centre are probably American so that's why the centre wants employees who can fake an American accent. But in this day and age of globalisation, shouldn't American ears be tuned to other accents?

There was a time when we used to laugh after people who spoke with an 'American' accent even though they hadn't made it past Palisadoes Road. And we had an amusing name for these phony accents. We called them 'accidents'. Well, it's no accident now that unemployed people are trying to get work using their best American accent. Signs of the times!

A few years ago, I had a student in one of my classes at the University of the West Indies, Mona who completely fooled me. I'd assumed he was an exchange student. When I asked him where he was from, I was shocked when he said he was Jamaican. And he'd never even visited the US. He had taught himself American by watching TV. And he was damn good. So here's my advice to applicants for the contact centre job: take a crash course in TV.

 

WHICH AMERICAN ACCENT?

 

Just as idle as my friend, I sent an email to the contact centre. I didn't submit my resume and my 30-second video showing off my best American accent. I would have been turned down immediately. My American accent no ready. Instead, I asked why applicants needed to have an American accent and if all American accents were equally acceptable. Up to the time of writing this column, I hadn't gotten an answer. I wonder if the contact centre knows that there is no such thing as a single American accent. There are many regional varieties of American English, each with distinct accents. So which one is wanted?

Our own Jamaican linguist, Frederic Cassidy, spent many years working on the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). The on-going project is based at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where he was a professor of English. The DARE website notes that "The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is a multi-volume reference work that documents words, phrases, and pronunciations that vary from one place to another place across the United States. Challenging the popular notion that our language has been 'homogenised' by the media and our mobile population, DARE demonstrates that there are many thousands of differences that characterise the dialect regions of the US."

My wicked friend who sent me the ad wanted to know if Ebonics would be an acceptable accent for the contact centre. But Ebonics is not an accent. It's not just a regional variety of American English. Ebonics is a distinct language. The debates about it are quite similar to the controversies we have about the Jamaican language. Barbara Blake's opinion piece published in last Sunday's Gleaner is a classic example of contempt for our local language. Her headline is eloquent: 'Jamaican Patwa In Education? No Thanks'. Unlike Barbara Blake, many of us will be very thankful when the Ministry of Education finally acknowledges the fact that children learn best in a language they understand. Is pure commonsense. And there's lots of academic research to back it up.

 

'NO LICKLE TWANG'

 

If Louise Bennett was alive today, I'm sure she would have lots of fun with that contact centre ad. In her poem 'No Lickle Twang', she mocks a mother who is embarrassed because her son has come back from the US without an accent. She can't show him off. He certainly wouldn't get the work:

Bwoy, yuh no shame? Is so yuh come?

After yuh tan so lang!

Not even lickle language, bwoy?

Not even lickle twang?

An yuh sister what work ongle

One week wid Merican

She talk so nice now dat we have

De jooce fi understan.

The best joke is that this woman is actually proud that she doesn't understand her daughter. Language is no longer about communication. It's pure image. I wonder if the contact centre isn't making the same mistake. They don't seem to want applicants who can speak American English. It's just the accent that matters. I'd love to see all those videos submitted by nice-speakers twanging in the Jamaican language.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.