For people who speak English as a second language, several pitfalls may stand in the way of communicating fluently with native speakers. Even with a firm grasp of English grammar and a full arsenal of vocabulary, correct native-level pronunciation remains an obstacle for many language learners.
For people whose professions demand a very high level of communication with native English speakers (such as healthcare workers, airline employees, public speakers, call-center operators, and IT professionals, to name a few) a heavy accent could become a barrier to success.
For the native English speaker, difficulty understanding someone’s accent often goes unmentioned for fear of making a co-worker, a professor, a doctor, or a customer service representative feel badly. However, those people who consistently hear the words, “I’m sorry, what was that?” or, “Could you please repeat that?” know that despite their hard work in mastering English, something is missing. Enter the field of professional accent reduction.
What is Accent Reduction?
Accent reduction is the process of modifying a non-native speaker’s pronunciation to render it more easily and effectively understood by native speakers. Offered in group classes and private tutoring sessions by trained language professionals, accent reduction courses are intended to aid non-native speakers achieve fluency in American English pronunciation. Classes range in cost, with individual lessons at around $100 per hour and programs lasting several months costing upwards of $1,500.
How does it work and what is an “American” accent?
By teaching speakers just how to hold and move their jaws, lips, tongue, and mouth when they make certain sounds, and training them in the standard speech patterns of American English, accent reduction professionals are able to elicit “correct” American English pronunciation and intonation from non-native English speakers. The mention of a “correct” accent often raises eyebrows and is met with valid concerns by thoughtful people.
What is an American Accent?
It is true that everyone who speaks English has an accent. In the U.S. there are many different accents among native English speakers. An American born and raised in Chicago may have an accent for a listener who is also American, but from Atlanta, Boston, or New York. Accents are always relative to some type of standard. The Boston listener uses his or her accent as the standard for comparison of the Chicago speaker’s accent.
When we talk about accent reduction, we first must define which accent is being used as the standard. The standard that American English accent reduction professionals generally use developed out of the widespread availability of television and radio during the last century.
The standard American accent, known as General American, is the form of speech used by newscasters and other media broadcasters in the U.S. TV newscasters in Seattle sound very similar to newscasters in D.C., or any other city in any U.S. region. Although a Texan, a Bostonian, or a New Yorker may have an accent that is different from the “standard”, each of them will understand the standard American accent without strain or confusion.
This standard accent originated from the form of English generally used in the interior of the United States, where a mixture of regional dialects created a fairly generic and easily-comprehensible linguistic model. Contrasted with Southern American English and the English of New England, for example, General American was not so much influenced by population displacements to and from the area.
Each language has its own particularities in elocution: from the trilled Spanish “r” to the absence of that letter in Chinese dialects. Those distinctive features pose specific problems for non-native speakers in pronouncing unfamiliar American English phonology. By modeling the physical components of speech, accent reduction trainers help non-native speakers to create the sounds that would otherwise feel inorganic.
Who Benefits from Accent Reduction Training?
In a continually globalizing economy, more and more immigrants are taking advantage of a field that has been around for at least a decade. Accent reduction is never accent elimination. When a person is trained to pronounce a second language in such a way that native speakers of that language are most likely to understand with no problems, it isn’t an attempt to take a part of their culture or identity away, but simply to facilitate understanding and to avoid the nuisance of constant questions like, “What did you say?” and “Could you repeat that?”.
Although some linguists and non-linguists alike have been skeptical about accent reduction programs, citing a desire to lose an accent as a move towards losing cultural heritage, the students in such programs seem to feel that they are gaining something rather than losing it.
Accent Reduction allows them fluid movement within American society while still permitting them the richness of their own language and culture.
One of the countries that has embraced accent reduction training – particularly within the field of information technology – is India. Although many well-educated Indian speakers of English work in technical support, accent reduction programs allow them to more effectively help the bulk of their clients: North Americans.
Latinos living in the U.S. make up another broad group who embrace the benefits of accent reduction training, particularly for professional advancement, and in healthcare settings.
A recent article published in the Intelligencer Journal highlights one Latino healthcare worker named Victoria Peña, and her experience with accent reduction courses:
Whether it’s co-workers who need to be able to understand each other better, patients who need to understand their nurses’ instructions, or a mother who wants to advocate for her child in school, being able to communicate and be understood helps people get along.
“A person who is understood then can talk about who they are and where they are from, and people actually like the accent and think it’s quaint and interesting,” Brooks said. That positive communication then leads to better relationships.
Accent reduction classes also can work in reverse, Brooks said. Some companies teach native English speakers the common sounds of their co-workers’ languages so comprehension is improved.
At Lancaster General, Stauffer said, patient complaints stopped once the class was complete. Peña said her patients understood her “100 percent better.”
Stauffer would like to see the accent reduction classes incorporated organizationally, although she recognizes it can be a sensitive topic.
To suggest to staff members that they could benefit from accent reduction could be seen as a put-down. Stauffer didn’t have that problem with her staff, she said, because she already has an open, honest relationship with them.
“I think that we cannot feel scared to try,” Peña, who would like to see more staff members, including doctors, take the classes, said.
Who Provides Accent Reduction Training Programs?
There are a variety of Accent Reduction services and products. Generally, Accent Reduction programs fall into two distinct categories: The Do it Yourself Programs, and those that guide a student with a Professional Accent Trainer.
Do it Yourself Accent programs range in cost, and usually include a video or software package along with a self-help book. The benefit of most professionally guided programs is that a student gets those materials in addition to personalized attention from an individual who is trained to improve pronunciation. A few providers specialize in Accent Training conducted via teleconferencing on the web. This personalized attention from a professional trainer is especially important because each individual will have distinct problem areas that require specific work that could be missed with a general self-study program.
ALTA Language Services has provided Accent Reduction Programs for over a decade to corporate clients and individuals. ALTA’s programs include training from an Accent specialist and materials for self study.