The Truth about Accent Reduction

“Why do you want to work on your accent?”
This is the first thing I ask prospective clients. If your answer is ‘Because I want to sound like a native speaker’, then I may not take you on as a client.
And I realize that might seem like a bad business decision.
If you are willing to pay for my help, why not give you hope that you can lose your accent?
Well, because it’s not the honest truth. The honest truth is that you will not lose your accent entirely.

It’s what many in the world of “Accent Reduction” don’t want you to hear. Some advertise Start Speaking like an American Today! Lose Your Accent in 28 days!
In the 23 years that I have worked in this field, I can tell you the number of accented speakers who have left my practice sounding like a native English speaker: Zero. Nada. Hasn’t happened.

But do they come away with increased clarity? Absolutely.

Increased confidence that their message will be heard? Yes. 100%.

But that is not the same as sounding like a native English speaker.
I’m not saying that there aren’t people in the world who were born into another language, learn English later, and can pass as a native English speaker. But those people have likely been fully immersed in that 2nd language early in life (before puberty), or have some super special talent for imitating accents. If that’s you, yay you. You’ll likely soon be receiving an Academy Award and everyone will say “Her accent was perfect!”
If you’re not expecting a red carpet appearance any time soon, then it’s time to shift your perspective on your accent.

Since English has become the most common Lingua Franca (bridge language, trade language), we hear it spoken in many ways by people who learned it later in life. We hear these many accented speakers slap the rules and sound systems of their first language onto English like a hockey player competing in a figure skating competition. Sure, the basic moves are there, but it’s not exactly the same sport. You may have been the Wayne Gretzky of your first language, but even Wayne Gretzky would probably drop Tessa Virtue on her……virtue (sorry Tessa).

So if your goal is to lose your accent entirely, I am here to tell you to change your goal. It is not only unattainable, it is unnecessary. 

Your accent should be an asset. If the person you are speaking to has a problem with it, the problem may just be theirs, not yours. There is accent bias out there, and some people simply won’t see you as a leader, no matter how clear you are. I believe we can change those people by giving them more experience in seeing accented speakers in positions of power. We are getting there. But change takes time.

Now, if clarity is an issue, then let’s talk.

There are differences between language patterns that impact intelligibility and those that simply sound different from a native speaker. This difference is represented by two approaches to accent work outlined by Munro and Derwing, 1995: comprehensibility and nativism. If the expectation is that you will be understood, but still have an accent, that’s comprehensibility. If the expectation is that you will sound like a native speaker, that’s nativism. And frankly it is an unrealistic goal. I work from the comprehensibility camp. I’m all about clarity.

If your listener is annoyed or distracted because you don’t sound like a native English speaker, that is not your problem. They are operating from a bias, conscious or unconscious, and there’s not much we can do about them. But if your listener genuinely doesn’t understand what you’re saying and asks you to repeat yourself often, that’s a problem with comprehensibility. If the difference between how you produce English and how a native speaker produces English results in this lack of clarity, then let’s work on that.

Sometimes a clarity problem comes from a difference in the sound systems of the two languages (consonants and vowels), but often the difference is in the prosody (stress, rhythm, and intonation). I often find that targeting English prosody can be the biggest game-changer for how understandable my clients are to their listeners. There is no one-size-fits-all to this work, but that doesn’t mean small groups can’t be effective. Sometimes it’s easier to hear your own differences from someone else than to hear it from your own mouth. But be warned that we might not work on perfecting that pesky “TH” sound—because when someone says “Sank you”, native English speakers may hear that it sounds different than when they say it, but they still know it’s “Thank you”. That’s the difference between sounding like a native speaker vs. being clear.

So let me be clear. My aim for you is clarity.  Not sounding like a native speaker.

And that’s the honest truth.

If you’re interested in clarity, let’s talk.

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