An Accent is More Than Sounds

A fish out of water

What is an Accent?

Most everyone can identify a foreign accent when they hear one, even if they cannot provide a linguistic explanation as to how it differs from their own speech. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association used to use Wolfram and Fasold's (1974) definition of accent: "a phonetic trait from a person's original language (L1) that is carried over a second language (L2).” That’s simple and to the point, one language is affecting another language. 

They have updated their definition, “variations in the execution of speech characterized by differences in phonological and/or prosodic features that are perceived as different from any native, standard, regional, or dialectal form of speech” (Valles, 2015) and “Accents are marked by variations in speech-sound production, prosody, rate, and fluency” (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, & Goodwin, 1996). These are more detailed and although they use specific terminology, it can be summed up as differences in sounds (phonological features) and the rhythm or “music” of a language (prosodic features). 

These definitions appear to be harmless yet embody a much deeper, personal issue for many individuals. The definitions above basically describe differences that can be simplified to, “You sound different than me” and that can create a distance or even a barrier between two people trying to communicate. 

Accent “modification” vs “reduction”

Many individuals who speak with a foreign accent or regional dialect seek out services variously called accent modification or accent reduction. In the book that formed the basis for my own training in accent modification, “Accent Modification Manual,” Edwards and Strattman (1996) defined accent modification as the "process of formal training to make the speech of a non-native speaker of a language more understandable. The goal is not usually the total elimination of a person's accent, but 1) the reduction of those characteristics that make the speech of the nonnative speaker difficult to understand, and 2) the addition of those characteristics that make speech easy to understand" (p. 10). 

I prefer this definition and I always use the word “modification” over “reduction” because it’s not just about reducing speech features that are different, it’s also adding some and making changes. I definitely don’t acknowledge the use of “accent elimination” because that implies that it’s possible to speak without an accent and that’s not true. Everybody has an accent; they just don’t know it. 

People will notice someone else’s accent that’s different from their own. It’s very much the case of “a fish doesn’t know it’s wet” meaning that a fish only knows that wet world and doesn’t notice it until it’s out of water. When you’re surrounded by family and friends that speak in the same way, have the same dialect of the same language, it’s very difficult to be aware of how you sound to others until you’re out of that familiar bubble. A lot of people say they didn’t know how they sounded to others until they went to college and met people from many different places. It was the first time they were ever teased about how they pronounced a word or which word they used.

I’m very aware of my own accent because I have to control it when I’m teaching. I want to teach the most general American English pronunciations, not my own that are influenced by a southern dialect. If I’m not controlling it, I’ll get teased by Bostonians for pronouncing “Ben” and “bin” exactly the same way. I know the difference, I can hear the difference, I can produce the difference, but it still takes conscious effort to do so. I have successfully reached automaticity with dropping the intrusive “r” from “Washington” so it doesn’t sound like “Worshington” so someday “Ben” and not “bin” will become automatic as well.

Personal Choice

The request for accent modification instruction reflects the struggle of bilingual and multilingual speakers in our monolingual society. The concept of "accent modification" itself has its detractors and supporters. Its detractors claim that it makes a statement about the attitudes and preconceptions that are held about multilingual speakers, that to "take away" an accent is to diminish the culture it represents. Its supporters state that the goal of accent modification is not to reduce or obscure any cultural identification, but to help the speaker reveal his/her true personality through the use of a language he/she is less proficient in than his/her native language. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice and I’ve heard many different reasons why people pursue accent modification, but it all comes down to a desire to improve and keep learning. 

I get to work with the most amazing people and get a front row seat to observe how successful people think and behave. They are already successful at multiple languages and are skilled professionals in their fields, but are not satisfied with being good enough, they know they can do better. All of them are driven by curiosity about what is making a difference in their speech and often, just finding that out from a speech evaluation, scratches that nagging itch that has been bothering them.

As well as finding out what the differences are, it’s also nice to know how many speech features they are already doing well. Even if they had an idea that there were only a few areas that needed improvement, most people dwell on those and ignore the many other things they are already doing well that are helpful for their communication.

More Than Sounds

 There are a growing number of approaches to accent modification from the three major professional/academic fields addressing this topic: Speech-Language Pathology, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, and Theater. I believe in an approach that integrates multiple fields, one that involves the person as a whole, not just his/her speech sounds. It involves a combination of understanding the underlying cognitive processes involved in first- and second-language production and the individual's emotional and intellectual construction of reality as shaped through the language of a new and different culture. A cognitive psychology perspective of learning theory, based on research in neurology and memory, lays the groundwork for themes found throughout second-language learning.

Accent modification instruction that only relies upon quantifiable measures (e.g., phonological targets/sounds) does not take into account the deeper psychological and social aspects of the language learner (Stevick, 1978) that may defy quantification. My approach to accent modification instruction takes into account language processing, memory, anxiety, interference, self-image, and social contexts. It’s not enough to be able to produce specific sounds “correctly” it’s about feeling confident that your real intended meaning is coming through clearly and that’s much more complicated, but much more satisfying than being able to pronounce "th” well.

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M., & Goodwin, J. M. (1996). Teaching pronunciation: A reference for teachers of English to speakers of other languages. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Edwards, H. T., & Strattman, K. H. (1996). Accent modification manual: Materials and activities, instructor’s text. San Diego, CA: Singular Publishing Group, Inc. 

Stevick, E. W. (1978). Toward a practical philosophy of pronunciation: Another view. TESOL Quarterly, 12(2), 145-50. 

Valles, B., Jr. (2015). The impact of accented English on speech comprehension (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses—Gradworks (Publication No. 3708574). Available from http://gradworks.proquest.com/37/08/3708574.html

Wolfram, W., & Fasold, R. W. (1974). The study of social dialects in American English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. (as cited in American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Joint Subcommittee of the Executive Board on English Language Proficiency. (1998). Students and professionals who speak English with accents and nonstandard dialects: Issues and recommendations. Position statement and technical report. Asha, 40 (Suppl. 18), 28-31).