Peggy Kayne

Executive Speech and Accent Consultant

Peggy Kayne's pictureIn 1970, Peggy graduated with a B. Sc. in Speech Therapy with a minor in Teacher Education from Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, USA. Being in the US, away from home and surrounded by students from all over the states and many foreign countries, sparked her interest in accents.  She realized that she too had an accent.  Peggy laughed at how funny other people’s accents were, but found that they also laughed at hers. Imagine saying ‘ho-oose’ instead of ‘haaa oose’ for house.

Upon returning to Edmonton, Peggy started her adventures in teaching. She was offered a position with Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) to teach a class of hard-of-hearing children.  This was a learning experience for both the children and the teacher. These young teens couldn’t hear very much and thus spoke with deaf accents augmented by some deaf signing.  Not being able to hear very much significantly altered how these children spoke and what they understood.  And yet, it was amazing how well these deaf children could speak through lip reading and the feedback given them by teachers, therapists and parents along the way. 

Always open to adventure where she could learn, teach and serve, Peggy hopped on a plane to Italy for a year and a half.  To work there, she needed to speak Italian. Learning Italian took many months and lots of practice until she could understand and be understood. It was a frustrating and daunting experience to be so far from home and surrounded by people who didn’t understand her, nor she them.  Over time, Italian rolled off her tongue with ease. One day, Peggy realized that she was even thinking in Italian and having trouble spelling in English!

Upon returning to Canada, Peggy took several courses at the University of Calgary to prepare herself to teach kindergarten. Kindergarten was a fun and creative place where she stayed happily for several years. As class sizes rose from 17 to 35 students, the challenge of kindergarten became exhausting and the repetition became uninspiring. A small event opened her eyes and mind to a new exciting challenge, a life-changing challenge.

In the spring of 1989, Peggy went to Mr. Lube for an oil change.  An immigrant fellow serviced her car, and after completing the job, he tried to tell her something. Four times he tried to convey his message.  To his frustration and hers, his efforts at speaking ‘English’ were undecipherable.  Peggy nodded agreement to stop the impasse.  Just minutes later, an idea flashed into her head: “I can teach these people how to talk!” It was a rush of joy, an ‘Ah-Ha’ moment.  “I can solve this problem and help all these immigrant people talk better.” Immigrants took English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and became quite good at reading and writing, but were not able to speak clearly.  Peggy decided to find out why it was so hard for immigrants to master spoken English.

Out of that one “Ah-ha” moment has arisen Clear Communications, Peggy’s company that today provides Accent Reduction courses to companies who hire foreign educated professionals.  Over the years, she has produced a textbook “Sound  Relationships – The How to Book of English Accent and Pronunciation” with CDs, and a video, “Say it Right” (in conjunction with the Catholic Schools Extension Programs). Thanks to her expertise, thousands of second language speakers of English are today conversing clearly with their English colleagues.  In 2000, Peggy was hired by Athabasca University to tutor the speaking portion of English 187 which she co-authored. She is now tutoring another course, English 149 – Advance Speaking and Listening. Peggy also worked as a Subject Matter Expert (SME) marking Business Writing and Business Communications courses for the Faculty of Business until 2008.

Finding solutions

Peggy began to research.  First, she reviewed her old speech therapy note from university courses but found little there. She looked in both public and university libraries for useful information to help develop strategies for teaching immigrants how to speak better, but again, there was little success.  The techniques in the few traditional linguistics textbooks reminded her of the movie ‘My Fair Lady’, adapted from the play ‘Pygmalian’ by George Bernard Shaw in 1916. Dr. Higgins’ strategy was simply ‘listen to me and say it again.’ Poor Eliza Doolittle was isolated in an all-expenses-paid total immersion program with uninterrupted time and one-on-one tutoring. She is shown wailing, “OYYYYeeee” instead of ‘I’ until her listening and speaking started to match what she was hearing.  This expensive plan worked for Eliza who already spoke an English dialect, but it is a very unrealistic option for immigrants. They come to Canada, often with their families, to work and build new lives. Peggy believed they needed some practical speech training to help them to more quickly integrate into Canadian life.

The occasional English as a Second Language (ESL) learning tool such as Pronunciation Pairs by Anne Baker and Sharon Goldstein provided a few useful exercises for beginning level sound discrimination, but they did not go far enough.  So, with creativity and intuition in full swing, she began to develop some ideas. The ideas grew into materials that were tested and perfected on clients from many different countries. Sets of materials grew into programs and then books and audio video materials.

The more Peggy learned about why and how her clients spoke accented English, the more accurate her strategies became at teaching people to produce accurate English sounds. Like the Australian, Lionel Logue, who cleverly taught King George VI of England to speak without a stutter when all the other professionals could not (movie The King’s Speech), Peggy  uncovered her own hidden talents. She defined what it means physically to speak English. Every language uses the mouth in unique ways. She found that copying the foreign sounds of her students provided a glimpse into both the problems and the solutions.  By comparing English and foreign sounds, she created special teaching methods that assist foreign speakers of English to become Canadian sounding speakers.  Some clients have become so skillful that they have been mistaken for being Canadian born!

Accents are no accident. 

What’s the problem with accents anyway?  Agata Gluszek, a linguistic researcher, states the obvious, "Speaking with an accent...[is] an important workplace stressor, which affects not only non-native speakers’ well-being but also decreases worker engagement and productivity. "1  Accents slow down and confuse listeners. It is like having spelling mistakes in your ears! Canadians often don’t understand accented English and ESL people are often confused by each other’s accent. The sound codes for speaking English have similarities with computer programming codes; errors beget errors and systems breakdown.  Agata also said, "I believe that in the ever-globalizing world we cannot afford to neglect the challenges that arise where a variety of cultures, languages, and accents meet in places of employment, education, leisure, and everyday activities. With the right tools and knowledge, we can turn the challenge into an advantage, to the benefit of everyone."2

No one talks about how to speak

No one, outside a few university disciplines such as linguistics and speech therapy, talks about how to make sounds. Every child in the world picks up the language of their families automatically. Thus, there is little need for most people to talk about something that is not being talked about anyway. As the global economy creates a whirling pool of people and languages, we do need to talk about how to speak.  We need a verbal common ground to relieve the tensions that are caused by misunderstanding accented English. Peggy has learned to talk about speaking and sounds and now has the know-how to help others to speak clear and accurate English in a relatively short time.

Canadians often use simple metaphors like choppy, angry, too fast, or flat to describe foreign sounding English. What do these descriptions really mean?

Choppy – the speaker is using quick, equal sized syllables instead of using the combination of long and short syllables of English rhythms.

Angry – is usually a combination of a choppy, fast rhythm plus using the same flat pitch for all the words. In English, choppy, flat and fast is a signal for anger.

Too fast – the long syllables are missing and the listener feels unimportant or ‘bossed around’. 

Flat means that the person is not using the higher pitched, long syllables of English that deliver the message of interest and friendliness. 

Foreign speakers of English make these errors in English because they do what is natural to them; they use the rhythm and pitch patterns of their native languages. Often, new Canadians are so focused on saying the words that they don’t even hear the many different sounds in English.  Language instruction tends to focus on learning the words and grammar not on the rhythms and intonation patterns.  This is a great beginning but only the beginning. Maybe it is time to start talking about speaking. For everyone, how we speak reflects is a measure of one’s education and ‘fit’ in society.

Errors, embarrassing errors

Who would have thought that even silent errors could cause so much trouble! A young student of Peggy's was working at Dairy Queen for the summer and asked a customer if he would like peanuts on his sundae.  However, the man heard, “Would you like penis on your sundae?”  How embarrassing (and confusing) for both of them!  How could this mistake happen when the words look so different?  In English, we often cannot trust our eyes to tell us what our ears hear. There is only one sound difference between peanuts and penis; it’s a silent space in the middle of a word. 

Say these words slowly and then more quickly while thinking about how your mouth and tongue are working. Close your eyes to focus on what your tongue does.       

peanuts= [pee n’^s] and  penis= [pee n’s]

The apostrophe [’] shows the ‘uh’ sound made in non-stressed syllables. So the second syllables sound almost the same. However, the circumflex [^] indicates a ‘freeze,’ a stop, a moment of silence instead of [t] before saying [s] , a little hiccup. You will notice that only the rhythm is different! These little stops are everywhere in English and, as you have just noticed, listening for ‘nothing’ is difficult.  Now, try the same test with the words ‘with’ vs ‘width’.  Don’t be too careful. Be normal, quick and casual.

Rhythm mistakes can also be embarrassing. One of the most avoided words by foreign speakers of English is ‘sheet.’ Most newcomers say the ‘ee’ sound too quickly and (OOPs) it causes ‘sh_t’ to happen.  The innocent foreign speaker is embarrassed and the Canadians are laughing.  The solution is easy, once a person knows what it is. If you stretch the ‘e’ to a count of 3 ‘sheee’ before adding  /t/, it will sound like ‘sheet’ no matter who is saying the word. The words ‘beach’ and ‘piece’ often have the same problem. Foreign speakers of English often need to ‘slow down’ to catch the rhythm.

Rhythm and intonation carries many hidden messages in the up and down pitch of the voice such as friendly, angry, irritated, or calm.  These nuances are often ignored by ESL speakers; they just don’t hear them.  Normally, if a Canadian says, “I really like your dress,” their voice will go up and slow down on ‘RE,’ of really and then drop down on ‘ly’ and go up and stretch ‘DRESS’. This is positive and sincere.  If someone says the same sentence but exaggerates the ups and downs, the Canadian listener would hear a mocking tone. A foreign speaker will not usually hear the change in the attitude of the speaker’s tone. To miss positive and negative cues can be more important than just understanding the words.  Missed social dynamics and the attitudes of others can lead to being left out of advancements and opportunities.

Using a flat tone is another thing that causes confusion and distress.  To a Canadian, the foreign speaker of English will sound unemotional, bored or boring because in English a flat tone is a signal for boredom and disinterest. The foreigner speaker is using the ‘normal’ intonation (or lack of intonation) from his or her native language and is confused why their respectful way of speaking is not being received as the message was intended. The Canadian, on the other hand, might be thinking, “Doesn’t this person care about their work? This problem is important.”

Mouth mechanics are different and in every language. Using a non-English tongue position, for example, can make it impossible for a person to speak English clearly. This is can cause big errors. An Oriental speaker using a soft, curled-upward tongue position for R, can make the word ‘rice’ sound like ‘lice’ or 'really' sound like ‘lee lee.’ Even though the person is speaking their best, the resulting words do not sound professional. A flat, relaxed tongue that is used for rolling R, in Spanish, for example, can make word ‘rarely’ undecipherable in English and ‘Maria’ sound like ‘muddy a’.  How sounds are made determine what people hear. If the mouth actions used don’t match the expected mouth actions required by a language, speech is difficult and even impossible to understand. Both the listener and speaker feel frustrated.

Words are like puzzles and puzzles need to be put together the right way.  Connecting words together in sentences is called linking.  Words look one way, like separate little packages of letters when written on a page. However, when words are spoken, they break up into syllables, reductions and thought groups.  For example, the sentence is seen as, “There are only two pieces,” will actually sound more like this little string of sounds, “Ther r own Lee too pee says.”  The words break apart and reorganize into different pieces and sounds as they are spoken.  A new Canadian is likely to be easily confused and hear only one or two words such as too, the loudest, longest segment. It takes many repetitions of hearing fast moving speech to understand how it relates to stable written words.  Even Canadians can be confused if incorrect rhythm and stress are used as in “Ther r own Lee too pee says.”  Amazingly our brains usually interpret what is really being said!

Filling the Gap

Although, accents can interfere with every verbal communication - conversations, phone calls, presentations, sales calls, customer service, video-conferencing, radio, online conferencing, emergency calls, and chatting - they don’t have to. Clear Communications provides accelerated training solutions that help foreign educated professionals to speak English the Canadian way. They learn to hear the right sounds from the wrong sounds, speak accurately, make words blend into smooth phrases and use effective, friendly intonation.  By applying simple tips and tricks, foreign speakers will quickly be heard as speaking nearly-Canadian or better.  People’s lives change for the better; workplaces are more productive; foreign educated employees are more satisfied with their work lives and you are happy that your work teams are more effective.


1 Gluszek, Agata. (2010-09-02). Human Accents – The Science Behind the Way We Speak. In Promoting Linguistic Tolerance. Retrieved November 29, 2012 from http://www.humanaccents.com/promoting-linguistic-tolerance.html

2 Ibid