Teaching "Accent Modification" is the path less traveled
Where am I coming from?
I decided to combine my degree in speech-language pathology with teaching English as a second language to completely specialize in helping people who speak English with the influence of another language improve how easily they are understood. At that time, accent modification fell between the cracks of several professions and was just a footnote in textbooks. I was fascinated by the connections between the different fields of study and was able to apply knowledge and experience from one area to the other. When I taught English as a second language, I could give detailed answers to students’ questions about how to pronounce sounds and words that many teachers could not. When I was learning about language acquisition and production in my speech-language pathology classes, I thought of how that was applied in second language speech.
This led me to research cognitive psychology to get to the root of speech, where it all begins in the brain. That led me to focus on memory and learning. Before we can make changes, we need to learn something new. We have to be aware of something in order to put it in our memory to learn it and we need to be able to access our memory to retrieve what we learned when we need it. This works well with most subjects but not with speech and I wanted to know why and how it could be improved. This is what brought me to accent modification and from when I started in 1999 to now I’ve seen this niche area of instruction grow and grow.
Requests by nonnative English speakers for accent modification services have increased dramatically in recent years, partly fueled by U.S. companies’ employment of more foreign-born workers. Some may consider their accent a barrier, not just to regular conversations, but also to climbing the corporate ladder. Although there are no data of individual requests and services provided, an increase in the number of service providers, or at least those advertising on the internet, indicates a growing demand. When I did a Google search in July, 2004 and then again in July, 2005 for my research, there was a dramatic increase in the number of relevant web pages in just that one year. I repeated the same searches in February, 2020 and the increase was incredible:
Search for "accent modification" increased 4,120%
Search for "accent reduction" increased 2,356%
Search for "English pronunciation training" increased 9,813%
Search for "English speech training" increased 9,900%
Who is looking for these services?
The typical person who seeks out accent modification is a business professional over the age of 26 or a college student (Schmidt & Sullivan, 2003). They have a high level of English proficiency, yet their comprehensibility is hindered by a foreign accent. Typically, their motivation level is very high if they are seeking professional advice on how to modify their accent. Everyone has their own motivations and reasons for pursuing training; it could quite simply be an issue of wanting to communicate more effectively. Unfortunately, motivation may stem from the fact that a foreign accent may make a person vulnerable to stereotypical judgments, prejudices, and sometimes discrimination because some are deemed more acceptable than others (Montgomery, 1999, p.81). These perceptions of foreign accents suggest that the difficulty of communication does not rest completely on the speaker; intelligibility can depend on the attitude of the listener as well as on the speaker’s ability (Gass & Varonis, 1984).
Who provides accent modification instruction?
Accent modification instruction is provided predominantly by teachers of English to speakers of other languages (TESOLs), speech-language pathologists (SLPs), voice coaches in the theater profession. At the present time there is no specific certification or regulation of the qualifications of specialists in accent modification. Each field has its individuals who have taken a special interest in pronunciation and pursued additional education and research. Unfortunately, these individuals’ work rarely extends across disciplines nor involves collaborations with others outside their professions, although the future of accent modification may depend upon it.
Speech teachers and coaches need to recognize what each discipline has to offer and appreciate them instead of feel threatened by them. If someone comes to me looking for how they can make changes to their accent so they can sound more confident in their professional speaking situations and I notice that it's not the influence of a foreign accent that is making a difference then I will refer them or help them find a professional who can help them with their overall voice and breathing techniques, or a communication coach who can help them with how they phrase their feedback to employees, or improve their English grammar, whatever it is that may be beyond my area of expertise. I will help people find the best match for who will help them reach their goals, and if that's not me, that's okay, it's not about me.
It's been a very narrow path that I have followed to this point and it's not well-known to many people, but when people find me and it's what they've been looking for, I am reminded that I love what I do and I'm glad I chose this path.
Gass, S. & Varonis, E. M. (1984). The effect of familiarity on the comprehensibility of non-native speech. Language Learning, 34, 65-89.
Montgomery, J. K. (1999). Accents and dialects: Creating a national professional statement. Topics in Language Disorders, 19(4), 78-86.
Schmidt, A. M., & Sullivan, S. (2003). Clinical training in foreign accent modification: A national survey. Contemporary Issues in Communication Science and Disorders, 30, 127-135.
Do any of these feel familiar to you?
The expression, “find your voice” can be a figure of speech that refers to recognizing and expressing your values and passion. When it comes to how that voice is actually expressed in speech, “finding your voice” can be the physical use of your speech and finding the sound that represents you on your own terms.
“I want to sound like myself, the self that I choose, not the one that I picked up along the way.
I want to own it.”
This statement clearly articulated the feelings that so many people have and struggle with and came from someone I was speaking with in a consultation for my speech coaching that specializes in foreign accented English. This person had some differences in her speech that did not interfere with me being able to understand her at all. I’m sure most people would not have even noticed that she had the influence of another language in her English. So why was she calling me to ask about what I could do for her? She knew she wasn’t presenting herself to the world the way she truly wanted to and she didn’t know how to create that option.
She described an English acquisition story that I have heard from many people - she learned writing and grammar with specific rules but speaking English, especially pronunciation, wasn’t explicitly taught so she just “picked it up” along the way by trial and error in speaking situations. She could hear the differences between her speech and the way she wanted to sound and that created a doubt. Tiny doubts can chip away at confidence and create insecurities that affect more than just speech. When a lack of confidence has a negative impact on speaking in meetings, on the phone, and presenting, it can impact a whole career.
People who learn and speak English as a non-native language are acutely aware of their language and speaking skills but they aren’t the only ones who have those feelings. The truth is, everyone could benefit from more awareness of their language, speaking, and communication skills. Everyone has an accent, they’re just not aware of it until they encounter someone who sounds different than themselves. Most people don’t think about how they are speaking until they have to give a presentation or hear themselves on a recording. When there’s a discrepancy between what you think you sound like or wish you sounded like and what you realize other people actually hear, that’s when you can make a choice to close that gap and choose how you want to sound - own it.
For this purpose, consider professional development courses or private coaching in speech, voice, presentation skills, or leadership. All of these will bring more options to your attention and help you create the speech that truly represents you.
Dr. Christi Barb's Blog:
Thinking About Speaking