Could Your Accent Be Holding You Back?

Guest blogger Leigh Ann Spell shares some real life experiences about how important accent modification can be. For more information, check out her course: Accent Modification 101: Improving Communication Skills in Individuals with Non-Native English and US Regional Dialects

Have you ever had someone comment on your accent or dialect? Has your accent or dialect ever made it difficult for you to communicate in a professional or personal situation? I remember being so confident in my French language skills when I went to Belgium for a cultural exchange program right after graduating from undergraduate school. I had taken four years of French in school and felt sure that I could communicate effectively in that culture. I was surprised when I realized that although I could read and write French pretty well, I was lost when it came to listening and speaking French with my host families. I quickly realized that I understood and spoke French with an American dialect, certainly not with a native Belgian dialect! Many people who speak English as a second language or who do not use a Standard American English (SAE) dialect experience this same phenomenon in the United States. They have difficulty understanding SAE or they notice that others have trouble understanding them. Sometimes they are perceived as not being intelligent, educated or competent due to their accent or dialect. Why is this so and what can be done to help improve this situation?

First, let’s distinguish between an accent and a dialect. Many people use these terms interchangeably but they are not exactly the same thing. An accent includes the speech or pronunciation variations of a language. For example, when I first met my husband, a native South Carolinian, I was not sure what he was talking about when he said, “Do you want to get some “bald” peanuts?” Coming to the University of South Carolina for graduate school from Ohio, I was not very familiar with all of the variations of a southern accent. I finally figured out that he was talking about “boiled” peanuts and the pattern of his southern accent was to change the diphthong “oi” to “a”. Accent also includes prosody or intonation. When working with a client from Indonesia who was hoping to find a job in Columbia, we focused on her native language pattern of always raising her pitch at the end of a sentence. In English, this made her sound like she was always asking a question or was unsure of her response. We simulated job interviews by making sure that she lowered her pitch at the end of statements to sound more confident and knowledgeable about her area of expertise.

Dialect encompasses accent but includes other language variations as well. This can involve vocabulary, grammar and social language differences. When my family hosted children from Northern Ireland several summers ago as part of the Irish Children’s Summer Program, we quickly learned that although they spoke English, some of the children’s vocabulary words were very different from ours. We learned that in Irish English “chips” were French fries, “boot” was a car’s trunk and “football” was soccer. Grammar has to do with word order, word endings and how words go together in a sentence. When working with a Korean student at Columbia College, one pattern that she demonstrated that reflected her native language was omitting articles like “a”, “an” and “the” in conversation. Making sure that she included articles made it much easier to understand her connected English. Finally, social language use or pragmatics is another variation of language that can differentiate the native from non-native speaker. When in Korea three summers ago teaching a summer course, I loved learning about Korean culture and language. While teaching a small group of Korean students, I noticed that they were very formal in how they addressed me in the classroom and were even reluctant to ask me questions. After getting to know them better, I learned that teachers and professors are held in very high regard in Korea and one is not to be informal when talking with them. This was much different from the relaxed relationship that I have with my students at Columbia College and I had to learn to adapt to the Korean teaching and learning communication style.

Because oral communication skills are so highly valued in American culture, those who don’t use standard or “correct” English are often judged as being uneducated, unsophisticated or incompetent. The bottom line is that no one language, dialect or accent is superior to another – they are just different. The key is knowing how to adjust your dialect or code-switch so that you are communicating most effectively based on your communication partners or situation. Sometimes I have clients come to me and say, “I want to get rid of my accent.” I tell them that their accent or dialect is part of who they are and they really don’t want to get rid of it but learn how to switch into a more standard or accepted dialect based on the situation. We tell students at Columbia College that all dialects are equally valid, but when in a professional situation, like a practicum experience, aspiring professionals must code-switch into SAE. This is the most accepted dialect in American culture and is what is expected of them in a work situation.

So what can you do if you do not use a standard dialect and you feel like this is holding you back either professionally or personally? There are many resources for individuals who either speak a non-standard English dialect or speak English as a second language. Searching for Standard American English (SAE) or English as a Second Language (ESL) on the Internet can provide some general guidance. There are online activities as well as audio programs that can help people use more standard speech and language in their daily communication. There are also many classes offered face-to-face and online for non-native English speakers through colleges/universities as well as through some commercial programs. Finally, some speech-language pathologists specialize in working with people on dialect differences, accent modification and foreign accent management. This typically involves working with individuals one-on-one or in small groups and can be personalized to specific communication needs. Because there are many resources available, one should not feel that there is no way to improve communication skills. The goal is finding out how your dialect differs from the standard or accepted dialect in a communication situation and practicing to adapt your speech and language in those areas.

To learn about accent modification check out Leigh Ann Spell's course: Accent Modification 101: Improving Communication Skills in Individuals with Non-Native English and US Regional Dialects (3 Hours),

Dr. Leigh Ann Spell has worked as a speech-language pathologist and professor for almost 30 years. She currently has a part time private practice called Accent Connections, LLC and is the Associate Director of the Aphasia Lab and Adjunct Professor at the University of South Carolina (USC). Her background includes teaching in the Sookmyung International Summer Program in Seoul, South Korea, being very involved with the International Student Program at USC and serving on the board of the Columbia Council for Internationals.

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