Is there such a thing as elocution classes for adults?
January 16, 2015 1:14 PM   Subscribe

My dear, dear cousin (who is more like a sister to me) just learned that she did not get yet another job she really had her heart set on. She's employed but in a terrible situation and desparately trying to change her lot. Unfortunately, she's got some deficiencies. Please help me help her.

She is 40, single and childless with a master's degree from a very prestigious university in the northeast. (There will be a separate question as to how someone with my cousin's academic, critical thinking and grammar deficiencies was able to get a degree from such a place ... because it had to be only about the money.)

She is hard-working and kind, funny and bright ... but as a result of having been moved around often in some of the more underperforming NYC schools and growing up in a home that was unstable at best, she doesn't present well at all. For example, she will say "do she" instead of "does she". There are other subject/verb issues and she often misspells or misuses words. She's got a very heavy Brooklyn brogue. She is very committed to social justice issues but doesn't think through all aspects of a particular issue and then gets frustrated when someone challenges her depth of knowledge on a subject.

This would probably not be much of an issue if she didn't have designs of working with students in an academic setting or with something involving program development for high schoolers. She's competing against others who are far more polished than she (and often younger).

I do not plan to have this conversation with her today. She's devastated by losing out on this latest job ... but I really want to offer her ... something. I know she'll continue to be frustrated in her search if she doesn't make some improvements. Another family member suggested Toastmasters. Does anyone have any experience there? How do I suggest to her that she needs to work on her presentation? What concrete steps can I offer her? Thanks.
posted by nubianinthedesert to Education (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Toastmasters would help, although different groups are better at some aspects than others. It seems to take a while to find the right fit.

That said, I would start with seeing a speech therapist to perhaps rule out some muscle deficiencies and perhaps provide exercises to modify the accent.

Improv and acting classes would also be useful.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:21 PM on January 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

It sounds to me like there are two issues. The first is her use of language, which employers may be reading as evidence of a lacking education. There are a variety of ways to address this, including Toastmasters, which will repeatedly give her the opportunity to present herself in public and get feedback.

The second is her accent. I am loathe to tell people to get rid of their accents, but if it is hurting her, the decision is hers. There are all sorts of programs designed to encourage a generalized midwestern accent, which most people hear as being accent-less. So a search for "lose my accent" or "accent training" and it will give you a lot of options, including online options and audiotape programs.

There are certain elocution instructors as well. You should be able to find them by either doing an online search or contacting any local college that offers ASL or theater programs.
posted by maxsparber at 1:23 PM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

A lot to unpack here.

1. Does your cousin want to take "elocution classes"? Any answer is going to be meaningless if she is happy with the way she presents right now.

2. Yes, things like this exist, though usually not with the icky class issues that it used to entail and I'd be surprised if "elocution" is really used. Usually it's marketed as accent reduction, or public speaking, or job interview practice. Also, a lot of theatre classes marketed to amateurs stress these skills. I "lost" my Cajun accent through college theatre courses that emphasized voice work. (Though they absolutely weren't focused on an "elocution" model a la "moses supposes his toeses are roses", it was more just through learning what my voice can do and being encouraged to play around with different speaking styles.)

3. Because the class-based notion of "finishing school" is obsolete, you're probably not going to find one thing that solves all the problems you think your cousin has. Theatrical voice classes aren't going to teach people skills. A job interview workshop isn't going to teach her to code-switch. Toastmasters isn't going to teach her to not call someone a misogynist prick in a job interview.

4. Is there any real reason to suspect that the problems you've identified are actually costing her in job interviews? Plenty of people with Brooklyn* accents who sometimes misuse words are gainfully employed. Also, I spent two years underemployed, going on interview after interview that I didn't get. I think I even have a previous "wtf am I doing wrong in job interviews" question where people assured me of what I'm about to assure you -- there are SO MANY PEOPLE applying for every job these days. It can be tempting to assume there's something wrong with you, but most likely it's nothing personal and not connected to some obvious flaw.

5. I actually really like the Toastmaster advice. Not just for public speaking, but because what I sense is the real problem here is one of code-switching and being able to be culturally amphibious. Which is something that upwardly mobile people really struggle with. (And I'd include myself and my own family in that assessment.) Finding a hobby or a social circle she can join wherein she has to get outside her comfort zone and relate to people who are in a white-collar professional milieu would be really great. That could be Toastmasters, but it could also be taking up golf, a museum docent position, a professional networking group, or really anything that's a little bit aspirational and gets her interacting with people of the class her degree sets her up to move into.

If I were you in this situation, the "something" I would offer when you talk to your cousin is the advice I was given in my previous question linked above. Not "everything about you is wrong, now you have to spend a bunch of money on special classes to fix yourself."

*Seriously, assuming she is based in the Northeast this is probably a huge red herring, since everybody has some kind of accent, most people in the NYC area have that accent, and most people elsewhere in the Northeast are not going to code a Brooklyn accent as a particularly weird thing.
posted by Sara C. at 1:35 PM on January 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: *Seriously, assuming she is based in the Northeast this is probably a huge red herring, since everybody has some kind of accent, most people in the NYC area have that accent, and most people elsewhere in the Northeast are not going to code a Brooklyn accent as a particularly weird thing.

Unless you are black ... then it is not a weird thing, per se, but a way to make a class distinction. (Sorry for the threadsit ... Your points are very helpful, though.)
posted by nubianinthedesert at 1:42 PM on January 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

NPR on code-switching might be helpful.
posted by rhizome at 1:47 PM on January 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm a former member of Toastmasters, and I recommend it wholeheartedly; the thing is, your cousin sounds like she might be half-hearted about it.
Our chapter was very strict about beginning sentences with "So,..." and other verbal ticks. I can't imagine someone getting up there with the phrase "do she" in her speech...jaws would drop.
If you're comfortable with it, take her in hand and tell her "you cannot say blah-de-blah" whatever her verbal tics are. People from all kinds of "challenged" backgrounds have mastered proper speech, and it's within her grasp.
posted by BostonTerrier at 2:00 PM on January 16, 2015

I come from the rural south and entered into a hoity toity government-related scientific field in which the institutional gatekeepers were almost exclusively Ivy League or State Department legacy children, only they're now all grown up and crotchety. I had multiple people in my early career tell me that my twang would be a limiting factor for these people. That NPR link above is a good explanation to someone in a similar position that, hey, have whatever accent you want but do yourself a favor and learn to dial it to sound a bit like whomever you happen to be speaking in an interview. Toastmasters and the like are great, but if that's too involved there's always handy things like watching videos of people speaking in broadcast english. Once you're hired, you can talk however the damn hell you want to talk.

If the issue is less code-switching and more an issue with standard syntax, there's always the option of taking a JC/community college type course in English, public speaking, technical writing or something similar. Nonstandard syntax will be a problem if a future job involves anything written or presented in an official way (publishing? speaking at conferences? training other staff or students?) and it's not a bad thing to let someone know that it may help their odds if they put some work into correcting it from 9 to 5. I do a lot of writing and speaking, and I take writing courses and the like from my local community college about once every two years, just because it's so affordable and I almost always get something out of it.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:06 PM on January 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

If the issue is mostly code-switching and a noticeably "undesirable" accent (whatever that accent may be), "Accent Eradication" is probably the google keyword she wants to find workshops to take.
posted by Sara C. at 2:15 PM on January 16, 2015

Response by poster: Since this seems to be a theme, I want to mention that code-switching is not an issue.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 2:29 PM on January 16, 2015

Speech Therapy can help so don't rule that out. There is also Speech classes specifically designed for public speaking and performance. These are usually marketed to theater performing artists, but more and more business people are starting to take up the services of these teachers for public speaking engagements. You can google things like "Speech training for artists" "Speech Therapy for speakers" Or even "Public Speaking coaches" in your city. (Please note that sometimes coaches who work primarily with business people tend to charge more for the same exact technique simply because artists are poor and business folk are less so.)

There are classes, but your friend might feel a little out of place in them as they are usually mostly filled with young aspiring artists and they take a lot more time to see results with. The best bet would be for her to obtain private lessons. This way She'll waste less time and get more help with her specific issues.

Also- If she's afraid of losing her "brooklyn" accent, she shouldn't worry about that at all. If she's been speaking that way since childhood, she will always be able to switch back to the accent whenever she wants to. A lot of actors who go through training express this fear, that after studying speech for a while in another city, they will go back to their home state and sound completely different. This never happens. As soon as they go back home their original accent comes back to them very quickly (but they have the option now to not use it if they don't want) If you've spent your childhood and young adult years speaking a certain way, that way of speaking will always be available to you no matter how you change your speech later in life.

(I grew up in Brooklyn and lost my accent after working to lose it. My original accent sometimes still slips out when I'm angry or upset though.)
posted by manderin at 2:34 PM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Based on your follow-up and your username, I'm going to go ahead and note the elephant in the room: it sounds like you're concerned that your cousin is missing out on opportunities because she speaks predominantly African American Vernacular English, commonly known as Ebonics. For those that don't know, Ebonics is not a made-up bullshit phenomenon, it absolutely has linguistic and syntax rules that differ from American Standard English (ASE).

You are right to be concerned, if this is the case. Men and women who speak predominantly in Ebonics, even with advanced degrees, are hired less often and at lower salaries than peers who speak ASE. Google "ebonics and employment" for a long long list of scholarly articles that attest to this fact.

As a person who has worked in social justice circles, I can understand her frustration because former coworkers and friends have explained it to me thusly: "I shouldn't have to change the way I speak to be considered a valued contributor to this workplace/cause/group, embracing diversity needs to include the way I speak as an expression of my culture." I see it that way, too, but many employers do not, and any job that requires interface with outside stakeholders may require that ASE is spoken.

Changing the way she speaks is going to be as difficult as learning another language at this point, if she learned to speak this way and has done so for 40 years. It sounds kind of like ASE but it has different grammatical rules and syntax, that is why she "messes up" subject-verb agreement and says "do she" instead of "does she." It's not a matter of her learning elocution, she is already following the proper grammatical rules for the dialect she speaks. Is she committed to learning another language?
posted by juniperesque at 2:50 PM on January 16, 2015 [28 favorites]

Interview coach, 100%. Let them suss out and present the issues.

If your cousin's held onto a way of presenting herself that she might guess could have professional implications despite her education, it is probably for a reason. For some people, that reason might have to do with identity and values. If that's partly the case with your cousin, I wonder if a coach who's attuned to your cousin's values (ideally someone who's familiar with education and social justice work), maybe a PoC, might be positioned to better understand the issues she faces, and help her more effectively than e.g. a white 30-year-old with a background in finance would (is my thought). Reaching out to possible mentors might be another way to go, either in her community or through an identity-based professional organization.

(The way you describe your cousin makes me think she could do a lot of good on the front lines, actually dealing with kids who are where she's been. Is she interested in that side of things? Is she volunteering anywhere at the moment?)
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:42 PM on January 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

Juniperesque hit the nail on the head. African American Vernacular English, just like Appalachian English, is a distinct language with its own syntax rules. It's not a random, sloppy way of speaking that's based around arbitrary unwillingness/ignorance to use the "-ing" in a gerund or whatever (I am not saying that you, the OP, believe this, but this is what many in the general population - the ones doing the hiring - often believe). Your cousin is speaking with the use of proper grammar "for the dialect she speaks," to direct quote juniperesque.

Does your sister live and work in Brooklyn, or want to? I ask this because, given her passion for social justice issues, I would argue that she would be a great candidate for social justice work in a place where she speaks the same language as those she is working to help. Speaking the same dialect/language can really enable trust between people who may otherwise be reticent to accept assistance or help from those working in the formal economy or other positions of relative power and agency. (The academic/high school student development programs she's been applying for don't really count for this here, because those places most likely want to maintain or emphasize the use of ASE). Perhaps this is naive of me to suggest. But, I suggest it as a possible alternative to asking her to consider learning another language (ASE) - it's worth looking into social justice employment in places where her dialect would be welcomed (again, academia may be out because of the ASE-bias), because her employers would see that it makes her a strong and trustworthy ambassador for their mission.
posted by nightrecordings at 3:50 PM on January 16, 2015 [12 favorites]

"Changing the way she speaks is going to be as difficult as learning another language at this point"

As someone who comes from a very similar background as your friend AND has learned other languages I can tell you that this is absolutely not true. If it were actors wouldn't be able to pull off changing their accents for movies all the time.

If she works daily at it, she can get rid of her brooklyn-ese in a matter of a few months. It takes YEARS to learn a language fluently and even then, you always sound like a foreigner. Changing speech patterns takes a lot less time and if you do the work you will be 100% convincing as a person who's from a more "affluent" upbringing. Comparing this to learning another language is just wrong.

I've done it. 10 years ago I got rid of my brooklyn accent with the help of a speech instructor and listening to tapes and it made me 1000x more hireable. Whenever I go back to brooklynese comes back, but the difference is that I have the CHOICE to get rid of it whenever I want whereas before I did not have that choice.
posted by manderin at 6:21 AM on January 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Have you watched My Fair Lady with your cousin? Maybe you should have a movie night and you bring the movie. It might help to spark some conversation in a non-threatening way.
posted by CathyG at 7:22 PM on January 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

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