Accents are a wonderful thing—they give us clues into people’s heritage and diverse backgrounds, but for some speakers, an accent may be heavy enough to make it hard to communicate effectively. If you’re experiencing challenges because English is your second language, you may benefit from accent modification, or accent reduction, services. This article will describe some basics of accents and ways that services can help change an accent to make a speaker easier to understand.
Why Would Someone Want to Reduce Their Accent?
An accent occurs when a speaker’s native language interacts with how they speak their second language. We’ve all known speakers who spoke a second language very fluently and with almost native-speaker-like proficiency, and others who spoke the second language with a strong accent that made them harder to understand in the second language. Here are some of the reasons this occurs.
Less experience with the second language may mean a heavier accent
Naturally, the more experience a speaker has with the second language, the more proficient they become and the less they may be impacted by difficulty with the vocabulary or grammar or the second language. This means they will tend to speak the second language without hesitation or pauses because they’re not struggling to translate or formulate their thoughts in the second language. This improved proficiency often makes the speaker easier to understand. The message is not interrupted by constant pauses or revisions. While an “accent” usually refers to speech sound production, it’s important to remember that improving your proficiency in a second language—expanding your vocabulary, increasing your ease of using the language and learning more rules of grammar—will make you appear to have less of an “accent” as well.
Learning a second language later may make you more accent-prone
Age of learning a language and experience with the language often go hand in hand. The earlier a speaker learns a language, the less likely they are to have an accent years later. This is why young children who learn a second language often grow up speaking that language with no accent. Our speech and language systems are still developing up until around 8 years of age. If we learn to speak a second language as a child, it becomes much more effortless to internalize the sound system and rules of that second language. As a result, kids who get exposure early to a second language may be less likely to need accent reduction help as an adult.
Continued exposure to the native language versus immersion in the second language
Another factor that might influence our learning of a second language has to do with how much of the time we’re relying on our native language. Highly immersive language experiences allow us to become more comfortable speaking a second language. Children who are adopted internationally, for example, are often described as having “second-first language acquisition.” In this example, the speaker often completely leaves the environment of the native language to speak only the second language in their adoptive home. As a result, they lose their ability to speak the first language (depending on the age of adoption) and become native-speaker-like in their ability to speak the second language.
Being bilingual opens up many opportunities so we like to encourage usage of as many languages as a family speaks while at home. If your family is from another country and living in an English speaking country, your children will gain enough immersion in English through their exposure at school to become proficient speakers. Continuing to use your native language at home helps to ensure continued skills in your family’s language, which can provide your child with cognitive benefits and workplace opportunities in the future. This is true even if your child has any developmental struggles or academic concerns. Continue to communicate in a way that feels natural to you at home.
Your accent might be stronger depending on how different your native language is from English
Languages consist of many sets of rules—how sounds can be combined to make words, how words can be combined to make sentences, how stress patterns get assigned to words and sentences, what sounds connote what meaning—and all these rules can vary from language to language. However, some languages have a good degree of overlap, say for example French and Italian, which makes it easier for speakers of one language to learn the other. It also means that it may be easier for speakers of similar languages to master the sound system and speak without an accent.
Other languages may be more different, and as a result, it may be harder for second-language learners to master the new language without an accent. For example, in most dialects of English, there are two versions of the “th” sound—one with the vocal folds vibrating, as in “the” and the other with the vocal folds still, as in “thigh.” This is a sound that carries meaning in English, but it’s not included in the phonology, or sound system, of many other languages. As a result, when a non-native English learner gets to a word with a “th,” they have to stop and either 1) learn how to pronounce the “th” sound or 2) substitute the closest sound they can for the “th.” This substitution, along with many other substitutions in which the first language maps on to the second language, results in an accent.
Why is it So Hard to Change an Accent?
This underlying impact of the native language sound system, and the degree to which the second language sound system may be “foreign” results in a lot of challenges when trying to learn a new language! We all would love to speak a second language effortlessly with a native-like accent, but unfortunately this is much easier said than done! Why is accent reduction so hard?
Our native language works too well--and sets us up for accents
We start getting exposure to our native language before we’re born. Research has shown that babies start demonstrating preference to their mother’s voice, and also her language, while still in the womb. We develop this preference presumably because it makes it easier and more efficient for us to learn to talk after we’re born. If we know which types of sounds to attend to, then we can internalize the sound system of our language and learn to speak to those around us. In fact, we start to lose the ability to hear the difference between sounds that don’t matter for our language. Unfortunately, Mother Nature has not primed us to have Zoom calls with people on the other side of the world, or to make an international move for school and work! As a result, we can’t readily perceive the difference between sounds in a second language and figure out how to move our articulators to produce them as a native speaker would. As we do try to learn the movement, it feels unnatural and we’re not sure if we’re doing it right because of our perceptual difficulty. This is where accent modification or reduction services can be helpful. You’ll get structured practice listening to the difference between the sound you struggle with and your production, and careful feedback about your attempts to make the new sound.
Changing an accent requires a lot of practice—and it’s hard to find the time
It’s frustrating that you can be completely competent in reading and writing in a new language—our vocabulary and grammatical skills may be excellent—but that impact of our native phonology still causes us to speak with an accent. And, depending on the degree of the accent, it may interfere with spoken communication in the second language.
While we can always master new speech skills, this takes some motor skill in addition to the perceptual challenges described above. Like all motor skills, it takes many repetitions to begin to feel comfortable with the movement. Think about learning to shoot a basketball in a hoop or throw a baseball. When you’re first learning this skill, it feels awkward and it takes a lot of slow practice, focusing carefully on technique. As you begin to get better with practice, you can do more and more repetition and get better and better. The same is true for speech sound practice. At first, it may feel challenging to produce the sound, even if you’ve learned to hear the distinctions between two previously identical sounding consonants or vowels. One of the main focuses of accent reduction services is to provide routine and accountability for accomplishing the repetition to master and internalize the motor plan for the new sound.
How do Accent Reduction Services Work?
Accent reduction services typically address the areas described above—helping with English proficiency as needed, and providing direct coaching regarding the impact of the native phonology on English sounds. Services can be provided by an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, an accent modification coach, or a speech-language pathologist. The professional helps inform you about areas of potential improvement, define exercises that will help to target those areas, set goals with you based on your priorities, and then coach you through learning the sounds of English you struggle with. Other components of sessions may include working on idioms or slang or practicing the stress timing and intonation of English. You will complete practice in between sessions to help boost your motor learning for new sounds. As you make progress on your goals, your accent will be reduced and native English speakers should find you easier to understand. You can read more about what an accent modification program may include on the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association website.
Why Choose Verboso for Accent Reduction?
At Verboso, we offer accent modification services as part of our commitment to helping individuals communicate clearly. Our teletherapy appointments are convenient and can be accessed from the comfort of your own home. You will work one-on-one with an instructor who can help you reach your goals to reduce your accent and speak more clearly. In addition, we’ve created speech video games that allow users to practice individual English consonants, powered by speech recognition software so that the game advances with your speech attempts. This makes practice fun, so you feel motivated to do it. Plus, the practice sessions you log in between sessions get uploaded to an online portal so your instructor can review practice patterns with you and help you maximize your progress. All of our clients start with a free screening, so head over to our therapy services page and sign up today!