Foreign Accents: To change or not to change…

I love foreign accents.  The lyrical rhythms of different languages are beautiful to hear, but there are times when a heavy accent interferes with people’s ability to comprehend communication, that is when accent reduction/modification is beneficial.  For the professor, who speaks English as a second language, it can be frustrating to have to continually repeat what has been said or to respond to questions solely the result of misunderstandings.  In high pressured business situations, being confident that your message is accurately conveyed to the team is critical.  In both situations, it’s possible that people will misunderstand or dismiss the idea being presented simply because they do not understand. Those are just a few of the situations that warrant considering accent reduction.

Why do some people have strong foreign accents? Because the rhythm, stress, prosody, and pitch of the first language are layered onto the second language. Let’s compare speaking to singing. No two people sing alike because they produce sounds differently, hear the sounds differently, stress words slightly differently, and produce a rhythm that is uniquely their voice. The same occurs in speech. How we speak is unique to each of us.   Some of us hear sounds very accurately, perfect pitch, but for most of us, we are slightly off, some more than others. When learning a new language it’s not just important to say the words, but the ability to accurately hear the different sound waves that make up the sounds and replicate them accurately. There is a range of normal. Some people are perfectly able to imitate all the different stress and rhythms others are less inclined, but the ones who are less able to hear and reproduce those differences will have a stronger accent in the 2nd language.

What’s that have to do with accent reduction, well accent reduction is not just about producing different sounds correctly, it’s also about learning to hear the different components of the 2nd language and learning to reproduce all those elements. If you want to reduce your accent, don’t just say the sound, but listen closely to how it’s being produced.

Here are some suggestion for goals in your own accent reduction program in English:

  •  Learn how to produce short vowels  ( short a, e, i, o, and u)  for most people who speak English as a second language is tricky
  • Listen to newscast or podcast of your favorite speaker (newscasters speak Standard American English) find a few phrases or sentences to repeat.  Try to say the words the same way the person says them – tape yourself when you practice and listen ( pay attention to phrasing, tone, and stress)
  • Breathe – learn diaphragmatic breathing  to support your speech and then learn how to use breathing and pauses to increase people’s ability to understand you
  • If you speak quickly- when you are trying to learn to include all these new elements  Slow down

Do you want to change your speech permanently? Or for difficult situations? Well, lifelong changes take a lot of practice. So be ready to practice, practice, practice, and if your own program is not working we are here to help.

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