What you need to know:
- Search for jobs overseas and the desire to speak with polished British and American accents is forcing a growing number of Kenyans to hire diction teachers.
- Most Kenyans are multilingual and English is a third language, which sometimes has interferences in intonation and pronunciation.
For years, many Kenyans have assumed their English was just perfect for everyday conversations.
However, the search for jobs overseas, working in multinationals, and the desire to speak with polished British and American accents, which some argue affords one better opportunity, is forcing a growing number of Kenyans to hire diction teachers.
Their goal? To have a refined and classy eloquence that comes with speaking with a proper British or American accent.
Most Kenyans are multilingual and English is a third language, which sometimes has interferences in intonation and pronunciation.
Branice Adisa Kisia, a tutor at Nova Pioneer in Athi River is among those who are teaching children diction.
"It's diction with the letter ‘I’ and ‘o’ silent, not how you pronounced it,’’ she tells me as I start the interview.
"We are not just teaching the students to get jobs, we are bringing up individuals who will innovate and lead globally and with this [a refined accent ], they will not have a hard time when trying to blend in. Parents at the school want their children to speak with a properly articulated British accent, they pay a lot of school fees to attain value," she says.
Ms Kisia, who has been teaching diction for six years now, has never lived in the United Kingdom (UK) but says she has polished her British accent, well enough to teach both children and adults.
"During the weekends and holidays, I do Zoom classes for adults and children who want to speak in the classy British way. Because of crazy work schedules, adults take classes early in the morning or late in the evening. Some pronunciations are funny and hard so most of my Zoom classes are full of laughter. I find the children more interesting to tutor because of their curiosity,” she says.
Those in the session pay from Sh1,000 to Sh2,000 per hour, depending on whether one is a child or adult.
"It may seem a bit difficult at first, but English is an everyday conversation. The more the practice, the quicker the adoption. For instance, you should say nay.shn (nation), tay.kn (taken), uh.dop.shn (adoption),” Ms Branice says.
"Parents want their children to outgrow the common intonation and pronunciation that they pick from TVs [and daily interactions with family and friends] and have proper accents. It also helps them blend in during family trips abroad and lays the foundation for later studies abroad," she says.
Vivian Gachohu, another tutor at Nova Pioneer, holds a Bachelor's Degree in Education from Kenyatta University. She adds that children grasp the accent faster compared to adults.
"It’s like they copy and paste. For them, they imitate the speech patterns faster because as an adult you might find you have prolonged influence, probably from your native language," she says.
But why the fuss about having a British accent if one can communicate well?
“It acts as a confidence-booster and makes one unique among the others. Tell me if today my child speaks with a British accent or even an adult in this matter, how many people would turn their heads to curiously look in your direction? You will automatically shift their attention to them wanting to hear what they have to say," she says.
Cyrus Omondi, a music teacher and a spoken word poet has also found a job opportunity teaching perfect British pronunciations and intonations to students in preparation for life abroad.
"I had a chance to tutor in three international schools before deciding to fully get into online tutoring to create time for other streams of income. It gives my students joy when they speak with an accent. For adults, most of them take these classes due to the job opportunities they are offered,” he says.
“I find it easier to tutor adults, you can cover a lot in a short period and they can take in complex pronunciations except that time is a huge barrier. However, children’s attention span is brief, so your planning needs to be precise so that you cover what is required and find a way to simplify everything," he adds.
Kenyan English has changed significantly since the country was colonised by the British in the 1920s.
Over the years, the young generations have shed the mother tongue interference in how they communicate in English, thanks to parents taking their children to better schools or their children mingling with foreigners on playgrounds or at home.
Mr Omondi says his clients are mostly children of rich business people. He also teaches career-oriented adults.
"It's funny that from when I started, I keep getting clients referred by my previous students. I have never really struggled to get students. I charge Sh1,500 per session of 40 minutes to one-hour maximum," he says, adding "what's even exciting during the online classes is the children telling me how their day was while others are excited that they can now swim or ride bicycles. For adults, we sometimes discuss politics and the weight of our economy."