Many people feel uncomfortable with their accent when speaking English because they assume that having an accent is the same as having pronunciation problems and not communicating well. For this reason, many teachers offer accent reduction classes. Well, everybody has the right to change their speech in the way they feel most comfortable with. So, if you don’t feel comfortable with your accent, you can definitely hire a private tutor to help you with that. My purpose in this article is to invite you to think about the reasons why you would choose to reduce your accent.
In your country, do people from the north speak in the same way as people from the south? Do people from different social groups speak in the same way too? In Brazil, for example, we have a great variety of accents and it includes different vowel and consonant sounds as well as speech rhythm. I believe someone learning Portuguese with the carioca (from Rio de Janeiro) accent would need some time to get familiarized with the accent of somebody from the northeast. So, in such a big and diverse country like Brazil, if I were to offer accent reduction classes, in which accent should I focus on? Well, I would probably use my own carioca accent as the pattern, even though Rio de Janeiro isn’t even the biggest city in Brazil. The same happens in the United States, which is also a big country with different accents. If you started an accent reduction class with an American tutor, which accent would you adopt?
Accent and power
Have you ever listened to non-English speakers like actors, actresses, politicians, singers speaking English? For example, Sofia Vergara (L1 - Spanish), Jackie Chan (L1 - Chinese), the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang (L1-Chinese), or even the president Vladimir Putting (L1-Russian). Well, if not, I strongly encourage you to access Youtuberight now and type “[person’s name] interview”. Do these people sound American to you? Have you noticed if they have an accent? YES, right? Does it make their speech hard to understand? Definitely, NOT! So, the point I want to make here is that accent has also to do with power. If you are knowledgeable and influential in your field, your accent won’t matter that much because people will be more interested in WHAT you have to say than on HOW you say it. In this case, you may have power that is not related with your language. That’s what happens with these famous people. However, it’s VERY important to emphasize that their speech is clear and understandable, which are two essential aspects in communication.
Your accent is your asset!
I started studying English when I was 13. At that time, I didn’t realize my accent was a problem. Actually, I didn’t even hear many native speakers. But, as I advanced in the language, I started feeling uncomfortable with my accent. It got worse when I went to the U.S. I felt bothered when people asked me, “where are you from?,” because I wanted them to think that I was American. This situation changed as I started observing other non-native speakers around me and reading more about this topic. For example, most of my professors in the Master’s program were not native speakers and most of my classmates weren’t either. Seeing all this diversity made me feel unique and valued. Another moment that made me take pride on my accent was president Trump’s election. As hostility against immigrants grew, I felt that those were times to really show people where I was from as a way to show my support to the group of people who were being targeted. So, my accent became a matter of principle and ideology.
Is your accent really the problem?
Finally, one day I realized that the problem with people not understanding me was not always my responsibility. For example, some people are not used to hearing different accents while others never had the experience of learning another language. So, they may not have empathy or willingness to really understand what the other person is saying as soon as they notice that the person’s speech is not what they are used to hearing. Because I have the experience of learning another language, I know how nervous someone feels when trying to communicate, I know how hard it is to understand someone in a noisy environment and so on. This experience makes me more empathetic and willing to understand someone who is trying to speak Portuguese with me. Actually, I appreciate the fact that the person is studying my native language. For people who have never studied another language or tried to communicate in another language, these are feelings that might be harder to understand. Instead of focusing on your accent, start working on:
finding a comfortable speaking speed;
articulating your consonants and vowels clearly;
structuring your ideas in a logical and understandable way;
responding to situations in which the listener doesn't understand you;
Trust me, the lack of understanding that sometimes happen when you try to communicate is not always because of your accent! As soon as you realize that, you will feel more confident and powerful to communicate. Lastly, next time you feel bad about your accent, remember that you are able to speak more than one language while people who “complain” about your accent may not have ever tried to accomplish that.
If you want to read more about this topic, I strongly recommend the articles below:
Your accent doesn’t matter. Speaking clearly does: http://speakupforsuccess.com/public-speaking-tip-18-accents-are-fine/
How to turn your accent into a public speaking asset:https://www.fastcompany.com/3067519/how-to-turn-your-accent-into-a-public-speaking-asset
What does your accent say about you: https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/what-does-your-accent-say-about-you
Good luck on your learning journey!
Fernanda Carvalho is a Fulbrighter, certified Neurolanguage® Coach with a Master's in TESOL. She believes in a holistic approach to language teaching, which involves people's development as a whole and not only language itself. You can find her on facebook @languagenextlevel and on her website www.languagenextlevel.com. Schedule your first neurolanguage® coaching session for free and check how she can help you improve your communication in English.