Upspeak is Not Speaking Up

Upspeak is NOT Speaking Up Upspeak ( Uptalk) had its beginning in the era of the Valley Girl in California. It has since spread its tentacles across the years to wrap around the speaking habits of both women and men of all ages. Why is this phenomenon significant? Because Upspeakers unknowingly compromise the quality of the competent, knowledgeable leadership image that they want to project.

Columnist Hank Davis writes, in The Uptalk Epidemic,

“It’s a nasty habit. It is the very opposite of confidence or assertiveness. It’s gotten all out of control. These days, even statements about which there should be no question or doubt are presented in this tentative, timid and deferential manner.”

When statements and assertions sound like questions, your credibility and competence can be doubted. When you give advice or offer an educated assessment of a set of facts, the perception of your expertise gets chipped away when you sound like you are asking a question. Would you want to be represented by or rely on the advice someone who sounds unsure and tentative? Tentative is the dark side of Confident. Your voice should reflect everything you want your listener to believe about you. You have substance. You are in control. You are knowledgeable. You have the answer….not that you are unsure of yourself and are seeking validation.

In less than a second, the time it takes to say “hello,” we make a snap judgment about someone’s personality, says Jody Kreiman, a UCLA researcher who studies how we perceive voice. On hearing just a brief utterance, we decide whether to approach the person or to avoid them. I would add that in that same split second, we decide if that person has “gravitas” and has the expertise to solve our problem, address our concerns, represent our interests.

I’ve personally witnessed Upspeak at the highest levels of Fortune 100 companies, and I’ve heard it used as a reason to deny a promotion or discredit an idea. A wise career move is to take the time to analyze your own speaking patterns and snuff out Upspeak. Record yourself in a variety of speaking situations and LISTEN objectively. Become your own audience. Elicit feedback from a trusted friend or colleague. To be perceived as a leader and person of substance, you must not only LOOK like a leader with a polished physical image, you must also SOUND like a leader with a polished Vocal Image.

Reducing accent helps people land jobs

 A very real barrier to securing new employment can be a heavy accent.  A hiring manager is reluctant to bring someone onto the team who is difficult to understand and will generate miscommunication issues and errors on the job.  A job seeker can  improve his or her chances for employment at an appropriate skill level by getting more control of correct pronunciation and fluency in English.  Poor language skills can be perceived as lack of expertise in other things.

An example:  After only five private lessons with a skilled speech and language professional from Language Directions, LLC, D.S, a New Jersey computer programmer was able to move to a higher level position in a prestigious Manhattan company.  He had realized that it was not his skill set, but his accent that was the career obstacle.  Similarly, when we met him,  Z.L. was a skilled internet engineer with advanced degrees and an impressive resume, yet he was unable to advance past a screening telephone interview to be able to meet with a hiring manager.   Many foreign-born university professors face similar challenges when they look over the lectern and see the panicky faces of students who cannot understand the important points of the professor’s lecture and cannot adequately master the material.  The “light goes out” when comprehension is not there and could have possible tenure implications for the professor and course grade of the student.

Individual and group classes are  less of a frill and more of a necessity as a stepping stone to reemployment or career advancement.  A package of private pronunciation  lessons is a reasonable investment.  Even the heaviest accent can be reduced 50-60% at a cost lower than the cost of a 3 credit course in a public university.  

Most people who have had coaching  to improve their speech  wish they had done it sooner.  They have shared with us that improving their pronunciation has given them a competitive edge for a new job opportunity or promotion.   According to S.P., a native of India , “that’s why I took it. I wanted to succeed, to go forward and to get better jobs. And that is necessary. You want people to understand you.”

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Language and Cultural and Its Impact on a Company’s Success

We’ve all experienced difficulty at one time or another speaking a second language or understanding someone speaking English as a second language (ESL). Imagine that difficulty in the workplace and how it impacts a company’s operation. Misunderstandings can cause financial loss through errors or lost time.

Differences in language and culture impact business operations in many ways, on the plant floor, with customer service, on company morale or simply day-to-day operations.
We all use short hand or idioms in our speech.  We take them for granted however for individuals whose native tongue isn’t English they can be confusing.  Even between people whose primary language is English, misunderstandings or misinterpretations occur on a regular basis.  Questions such as “Do you understand” or “Call if you have questions” often don’t help because the person may believe they understand so don’t ask any questions.  Often the lack of questioning is a result of fear—looking less than competent, or because they genuinely believe they understand what is being asked of them.  In that case it is not until the task has been completed that the misunderstanding is realized.

Whether the ESL speaker is a company worker or customer it is important for companies to understand how to operate in a multi language or multicultural business environment.  As employers it is in our best interest to create a work environment that speaks to the challenges of a multi-language and cultural world.

NJMEP resource Sharlene Vichness shared a few of her experiences in how language had impacted her clients operations and the remedy used to improve the situation.  
  • One company was experiencing a low percentage of employees participating in its benefit plans.  Due to difficulty in understanding the open enrollment presentations, ESL workers weren’t enrolling. With the help of a bilingual facilitator, who answered questioned and assisted in completing forms, enrollment went from 20% to 70%.  

  • An upscale supermarket opened in a new location and hired employees that were not proficient in English.  When customers would approach them with questions about where to find product they would run away, creating a less than ideal situation for the shopper and long term, a disaster for the business.  Using the weekly flyer as the impetus for learning English, sessions were built around answering customers’ questions regarding material in the flyer. Employees developed confidence in their language skills and welcomed the opportunity to assist the customers.
Ms. Vichness pointed out that OSHA requires safety training be taught in a language that workers understand.  Image the challenge offered a non-English speaking/reading worker when confronted with “push” and “pull.”  These two words could easily be misinterpreted as they both begin with “pu” and are four letters.  Confusing these two actions could result in misunderstanding what action to take resulting in an incident or accident.

Cultural differences can also lend themselves to misunderstanding, creating difficulty in the work place.  Different cultures have different mores regarding personal space, eye contact and physical contact. Educating workers as to the differences promotes an understanding of behaviors or actions reducing the opportunity for misunderstandings, harassment claims or lost business.

If your workforce and/or customer base is multi-cultural it is well worth your while to think about how much it may be impacting your business. Would it be helpful to provide facilitators when introducing programs or training to your workforce?  Does the customer service department speak clearly and slowly so that your customers have an easy time doing business with your company? Is equipment clearly marked so in an emergency there are no questions as to what action to take?  Have customers been lost because of cultural misunderstanding?  If planning equipment upgrades will the loyal workers who have run the old machines for years get the training in a language that is best suited for them to succeed with the new challenge?

Language and culture impacts everything, both in and out of the workplace. Stay aware and stay current on issues that can impact the success of your company. If you need help with any of the areas discussed in this article please call NJMEP at 973-998-9801 or email us at To learn more about how NJMEP can assist your organization please visit

When do Babies learn Language?

Research shows babies begin to learn language sounds before they’re even born. In the womb, a mother’s voice is one of the most prominent sounds an unborn baby hears. By the time they’re born, newborns can not only tell the difference between their mother’s language and another language, but also show a capability of distinguishing between languages.

Language learning depends on the processing of sounds. All the world’s languages put together comprise about 800 or so sounds. Each language uses only about 40 language sounds, or “phonemes,” which distinguish one language from another.

At birth, the baby brain has an unusual gift: 
it can tell the difference between all 800 sounds. This means that at this stage infants can learn any language that they’re exposed to. Gradually babies figure out which sounds they are hearing the most.

Between six and 12 months, infants who grow up in monolingual households become more specialized in the subset of sounds in their native language. In other words, they become 
“native language specialists.” And, by their first birthdays, monolingual infants begin to lose their ability to hear the differences between foreign language sounds.
Studying baby brains

What about those babies who hear two languages from birth? Can a baby brain specialize in two languages? If so, how is this process different then specializing in a single language?

Knowing how the baby brain learns one versus two languages is important for understanding the developmental milestones in learning to speak. For example, parents of bilingual children often wonder what is and isn’t typical or expected, or how their child will differ from those children who are learning a single language.

My collaborators and I recently studied the brain processing of language sounds in 11-month-old babies from monolingual (English only) and bilingual (Spanish-English) homes. We used a completely noninvasive technology called 
magnetoencephalography (MEG), which precisely pinpointed the timing and the location of activity in the brain as the babies listened to Spanish and English syllables.
We found some key differences between infants raised in monolingual versus bilingual homes.
At 11 months of age, just before most babies begin to say their first words, the brain recordings revealed that:
  • Babies from monolingual English households are specialized to process the sounds of English, and not the sounds of Spanish, an unfamiliar language
  • Babies from bilingual Spanish-English households are specialized to process the sounds of both languages, Spanish and English.
Our findings show that babies’ brains become tuned to whatever language or languages they hear from their caregivers. A monolingual brain becomes tuned to the sounds of one language, and a bilingual brain becomes tuned to the sounds of two languages. By 11 months of age, the activity in the baby brain reflects the language or languages that they have been exposed to.
Is it OK to learn two languages?

This has important implications. Parents of monolingual and bilingual children alike are eager for their little ones to utter the first words. It’s an exciting time to learn more about what the baby is thinking. However, a common concern, especially for bilingual parents, is that their child is not learning fast enough.

We found that the bilingual babies showed an equally strong brain response to English sounds as the monolingual babies. This suggests that bilingual babies were learning English at the same rate as the monolingual babies.

Parents of bilingual children also worry that their children will not know as many words as children who are raised with one language.
To some extent, this concern is valid. Bilingual infants split their time between two languages, and thus, on average, hear fewer words in each. However, studies consistently show that bilingual children do not lag behind when both languages are considered.

Vocabulary sizes of bilingual children, when combined across both languages, have been 
found to be equal to or greater than those of monolingual children.Another common concern is that bilingualism causes confusion. Part of this concern arises due to “code switching,” a speaking behavior in which bilinguals combine both languages.

For example, my four-year-old son, who speaks English, Spanish, and Slovene, goes as far as using the Slovene endings on Spanish and English words. Research shows bilingual children code-switch because 
bilingual adults around them do too. Code-switching in bilingual adults and children is rule-governed, not haphazard.

Unlike monolingual children, bilingual children have another language from which they 
can easily borrow if they can’t quickly retrieve the appropriate word in one language. Even two-year-olds modulate their language to match the language used by their interlocutor.
Researchers have shown code switching to be part of a bilingual child’s normal language development. And it could even be the beginning of what gives them the extra cognitive prowess known as the “bilingual advantage.”

Bilingual kids are at an advantage

The good news is young children all around the world can and do acquire two languages simultaneously. In fact, in many parts of the world, being bilingual is the norm rather than an exception.
It is now understood that the constant need to shift attention between languages leads to several cognitive advantages. Research has found that bilingual adults and children show an improved executive functioning of the brain – that is, they are able to shift attention, switch between tasks and solve problems more easily.

Bilinguals have also been found to have 
increased metalinguistic skills (the ability to think about language per se, and understand how it works). There is evidence that being bilingual makes the learning of a third language easier. Further, the accumulating effect of dual language experience is thought to translate into protective effects against cognitive decline with aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

So, if you want your child to know more than one language, it’s best to start at an early age, before she even starts speaking her first language. It won’t confuse your child, and it could even give her a boost in other forms of cognition.