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Accent reduction, also known as accent modification or accent neutralization, is a systematic approach for learning or adopting a new speech accent. It is the process of learning the sound system (or phonology) and melodic intonation of a language so the non-native speaker can communicate with clarity to be understood by the general public of this second language.
Accent reduction training is not the same as ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. Accent reduction classes go beyond learning vocabulary and grammar and focus upon clarity of speech and fine tuning a specific accent or dialect. Foreign accent reduction training is typically appropriate for adult learners who have at least a moderate level of conversational proficiency in the second language. Non-native speakers from any background or profession can benefit from accent reduction training. That is not to say that every non-native speaker needs to modify their accent, however. The goal of accent reduction training is to improve speaking clarity so the non-native speaker is understood in the workplace as well as within their community; not necessarily to totally eliminate the accent. Business professionals, physicians, professors, researchers, telemarketers, etc. oftentimes request accent reduction training be provided by their employers so they can communicate more effectively with their colleagues, clients, and customers.
Foreign born students and professionals can benefit from accent modification training to improve their English intelligibility to be more competitive when interviewing for jobs. Under U.S. labor law, employers can make job decisions based on accent if it interferes with work. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does receive a small number of complaints every year from individuals who believe they are victims of accent-related job discrimination.
Two distinct types of accent reduction training are available: self-study and instructor-led. There are many types of self-study books, apps, cds, and software systems on the market. Some of these products offer materials that are unique to individuals from specific language backgrounds. The self-study learning methods can be helpful especially if audios are included so the user can hear the correct pronunciations. Instructor-led training, although significantly more expensive than the self-study option, allows students to receive personalized instruction, obtain immediate feedback from the trainer, and typically make more timely progress. Instructor-led training is available in a variety of ways: 1:1 with an instructor, small group training, seminars, or workshops. Delivery can occur in person, web-based using webcams, or via telephone.
Accent modification is offered by various certified speech-language trainers, linguists, and specialists in ESL. Instructor-led courses typically start with a speech assessment to determine a student’s unique needs. Speech production is a very complicated process involving coordinating movements of the lips, tongue, jaw, vocal cords, and respiratory system. Speakers from different language backgrounds have different speech patterns when speaking English as they are attempting to implement their own language’s pronunciation rules while speaking English. Even people from the same language background can have differing speech patterns based upon the age at which they learned English, the characteristics of their teacher’s speech, and influences of other languages they may speak.
Areas of focus may include teaching students clear articulation of vowels and consonants as well as the intonation patterns that are unique to each language. The learning sequence is typically broken down into progressive learning segments until they cumulate into using the newly learned skills in conversation. Additional areas might include linking, rate, or voice projection. Instructor-led accent training will also frequently include conversational practice to help the student transfer these newly learned skills into everyday conversations.
Training timelines can vary from a few days to several months depending upon the chosen model of instruction. Outside practice time is essential for the participant to see significant changes in their speech.
Although accents can be minimized through training, actually eliminating an accent is extremely difficult to master and could take years to accomplish. It is unrealistic to expect total accent elimination in a short period of time.
Accent improvement focuses on teaching students how to pronounce difficult sounds such as /θ/, /ð/, /ɹ/, /l/, and /w/; intonation, stress, and rhythm. Spanish and Portuguese speakers might add an /h/ before the vowel /ɪ/, as in "his" for "is". Therefore, vowel sounds are also covered in accent reduction training. Practicing of the vowel /ɪ/ most commonly spelled "i" is done by reciting a few of the following differences: his versus is, hit versus it, hill versus ill. By not letting the back of their tongue touch the palate, native speakers of Asian languages (Chinese, etc.) can avoid adding a /j/ before the /ɪ/ for example in speaking "yin" instead of "in". Specialists also use activities, games, and printable workbooks to help students practice what they learn.
Although the accents can be reduced through training, some linguists warn against giving students a false hope that they will lose their accents. According to Dennis Baron, a linguistics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, eliminating an accent is difficult. Calming an accent, he said, takes years of interaction with native English speakers. Even so, under U.S. labor law, employers can make job decisions based on accent if it interferes with work. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does receive a small number of complaints every year from individuals who believe they are victims of accent-related job discrimination.
The actors Portia de Rossi, Tom Holland, Anthony La Paglia, Katherine Langford, and Charlize Theron are examples of notable people who received such training to lose their native accents and develop American accents, even in everyday speech.
With regard to English accent training, the two most distinct choices of accent reduction are the British or American pathways.
- "Accent Advisor - Accent Reduction Classes American Accent". Accent Advisor.
- Hope, Donna (2006). American English Pronunciation: It's No Good Unless You're Understood. Cold Wind Press. p. 10. ISBN 1-58631-050-X.
- Gorman, Anna (October 23, 2007). "Surge in accent reduction classes speaks volumes (Immigrants and others wanting to sound more American flock to the courses. But some linguists are skeptical.)". Los Angeles Times. Part B (Home Edition). p. 1.