Accent Modification is a mystery to many, including the general public, ESL Educational Community, and even some speech-language pathologists. I regularly find myself explaining accent modification and frequently asked questions. Whether you are interested in accent modification for yourself, an employer who is interested in accent “softening” for an employee, or a native English speaker curious about this speech-language pathology specialty service, then please keep reading for research-based answers on accent modification.
1. Is an accent a disorder?
No, your accent is not a disorder – it’s a difference. An influential American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) provision paper in 1983 explained that “accent reduction” is not a treatment for speech impairment, rather a speech difference that can be elected by speakers of nonstandard dialects of English.
2. What makes it difficult to lose an accent?
While there are many factors that make it difficult to lose an accent, the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America published a study assessing the relationship between an individual's age while learning English and the degree of accent while speaking English.
This study did not explore the ways in which accent modification can help. Nonetheless, the authors concluded that very few participants who began learning English after the age of twenty-five spoke with a native English accent. Women who learned English near the age of ten years old were shown to acquire a native English accent naturally and were relatively quicker than the male participants.
Adversely, adult women who learned English in their twenties had more difficulty mastering the native-English accent naturally than men of a similar age. Overall, people who spoke their first language more often were slower to acquire the native-English accent.
Speaking your first language often makes it harder to master your English accent
3. Do people have difficulty understandng me?
Most people can understand a speaker with a slight accent, but it does take more effort. This was explored in The Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research when they published a study analyzing how native English listeners perceive sentences produced by non-native speakers. Overall, the authors conclude that listening to intelligible but accented speech required increased processing effort for the listener.
It takes more effort to process to accented speech
4. Why didn't I learn this in my English school/lessons?
You are not alone. Most students learning English do not receive adequate training in English accent and pronunciation. The Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Quarterly published an article that explored the ways in which ESL teachers teach pronunciation. The article suggests that most ESL education lacks sound instruction for pronunciation and highlights the need for specialized services for pronunciation and phonology for non-native speakers.
5. How can accent modification improve my life?
There are many benefits of accent modification. Since we all have different priorities, some may be more important to you that others.
In 2013, The Journal of Cultural Diversity published a paper about a pilot program that aimed to reduce ethnic and minority drop-out rates in nursing education that were attributed to miscommunications. Through intervention and accent modification lessons, they found that the clarity of communication improved for all of the students involved.
Improved communication overall
In 2013, The Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice published a study that assessed the efficacy of an accent reduction program provided to international medical graduates and researchers. They utilized a pre and post video evaluation to assess pronunciation, syllable and word stress, and body language/facial expressions with two independent observers. They found improvement in all areas assessed and that focused accent training was "highly effective" at improving communication skills of non-native English speakers.
Improved employability for speakers with strong accents
In 2016, The Journal of Employment Counselling published an article detailing a study that was designed to determine how ethnicity, the amount of perceived accent or dialects, and comprehensibility affect a speaker's employability. Sixty human resource professionals assessed three female "job applicants" who spoke in Spanish-influenced English, Asian-Influenced English and African American Vernacular English. The results showed that when the speaker's perceived accent or dialect was minimal, perceived ethnicity did not affect employability. However, all speakers with maximally perceived accents or dialects were given a lower employability rating. The authors concluded that, "speakers with a maximally perceived accent should consider accent or dialectical modification if their comprehensibility or prospective employability is compromised."
6. What can I do within accent modification training to improve outcomes
Be motivated and committed
The University of Tartu (Estonia) published a study that examined the effects of training on the quality of English vowels in Russian speakers. They found a correlation between high motivation and good attendance, and improvements in the quality of English vowels. Results suggest that for more profound changes in accent, a program greater than 30 hours of training is necessary.
7. How long does it take to lose an accent?
Results vary based on accent strength. It's a process that takes time.
There are many factors that need to be considered when considering how long it will take to 'lose' an accent. From a research perspective, one Estonian researcher found that programs less than 30 hours provided a good awareness of English phonology (the English sound system of pronunciation) and estimated that for profound change longer programs are required. I've seen this in my private practice as well. *Full disclosure: any cursory program that promises drastic improvements in an eight-hour workshop will likely let you down.
Now that you’ve read this article, you already know more about accent modification than most people. Accent Modification is an effective training strategy to soften your accent, bolster your communication clarity and improve your confidence.
I am a Toronto-based accent coach and registered speech-language pathologist. If you have any questions that were not answered in this article, please feel free to leave a comment and I will be happy to help.