Every week at Confidence Learning Services, I interact with people who have various accents, either from different regions of the country, other English speaking countries, or other language backgrounds. And yet it always seems that the majority of people think they do not have an accent.
I’ve encountered one professional from another country with a particularly strong accent that impacts how others understand him. He insisted that he did not have a foreign accent, and that he had even successfully learned to speak with an American Southern accent.
Another speaker with an accent that causes her to regularly repeat herself believes that she does not have an accent, because others from her same language background have told her she does not – meaning at least that her pronunciation is better than theirs.
Then there’s always the story of the old, Southern lady speaking with a strong drawl, expressing how much she wishes she had an accent when meeting someone from another country.
And my husband’s family from Ohio would probably suggest that their entire state is devoid of any accent!
So, do you have an accent? And if so, why can’t you hear it?
Accent Reduction Rule #1 – Everyone has an accent
Yes everyone. Even the President of the United States, the Queen of England, and myself. Everyone speaks with an accent, rules governing their pronunciation of different vowels and consonants. Accents that sound “stronger” or “heavier” than others are simply further from your own pronunciation.When you learn to speak with a “Standard American Accent”, like we teach in our Accent Reduction courses, people will likely understand you better. You’ll repeat yourself less, and you might get people to focus on what you have to say, instead of how you say it. But you will still have an accent – just a Standard American Accent, which will allow you to be better understood throughout North America, but might not improve your communications in other English Speaking Countries.
Accent Reduction Rule #2 – You probably can’t hear your own accent
Unless you spend a lot of time thinking about your accent or others’, you probably don’t notice your own accent. Why is that? Surely, we think people like Arnold Schwarzenegger would notice their own accent. But that may not be the case. Often, we don’t notice aspects of ourselves that we live with day in and day out. You may not notice, for instance, how long your hair has grown until someone comments on it, or that you have gained or lost a little weight, or gotten a tan. And you might not even think about your tattoo or nose ring throughout the day, until someone points those things out. That’s because we’re focused on other things – what to eat for dinner, highway traffic, or our big presentation coming up next week.
Accent Reduction Rule #3 – Your brain is working against you
When we are infants, we can hear every sound in every human language and differentiate all of them. The difference between the vowels in “beat” and “bit”, the difference between /r/ and /l/, or the difference between the two Arabic “s” sounds are all very clear to us. But as we grow, our brain starts narrowing down to focus only on the sounds that are present and meaningful in the language we are exposed to. Meaning that if you are exposed to Mandarin as an infant, you notice tonal differences, but your brain throws out the difference between English /r/ and /l/ since that’s not useful. If you’re exposed to English, you can hear all 11 vowel sounds, but your brain learns to ignore any difference between different “s” sounds.
By the time we reach puberty, the language section of our brains changes significantly. The languages we were exposed to as children solidify, but those we weren’t exposed to become harder to learn. So if you are reading this as an adult, you likely can’t hear all of the sounds in your new language clearly, meaning you don’t notice when you pronounce “beat” and “bit” the same, because you can’t hear the difference between those vowels, while native speakers can.
Accent Reduction Rule #4 – Your social group matters
Most of the speakers I encounter who recognize they have an accent and are seeking Accent Reduction services, spend a lot of time among native English speakers. By comparison, they realize their accent is different from their peers, and they may hear comments on their accent, or be asked to repeat themselves regularly. Many who recognize their own accent actually have a relatively “mild” accent, compared to other non-native speakers, but their desire is to learn the Standard American Accent.
Most of the non-native speakers I encounter who do not recognize their own accent, spend more time among non-native English speakers. Compared to other speakers who are still struggling to speak English, they think their English sounds great. In fact, other non-native speakers may ask them for help or compliment them on their English. This gives them confidence in their speech, and when they encounter native speakers who regularly ask them to repeat themselves, they make excuses in their mind for the lack of understanding. “It must have been a poor phone connection, or perhaps they don’t understand my word choice, because I definitely don’t have an accent.” Typically, these speakers have a stronger or heavier accent than those belonging to the first group.
The same rule applies to regional accents as well. Those who spend their time primarily interacting with others from their same accent group or local area are less likely to notice their own accent, but those who travel throughout the country regularly or who have a more diverse group of friends will likely recognize their own accent and others’.
Accent Reduction Rule #5 – You can know for sure!
If you want to know more about your own accent, there’s great news. You can get a detailed, technical analysis of your own accent. At Confidence Learning Services, we provide an assessment that tests your pronunciation of each consonant and vowel sound in the English language as well as factors like stress, linking and intonation. Most people who get the results from this assessment are reassured – they knew there was “something” they couldn’t put their finger on, and the assessment gives them specifics that they can act on.