Accent reduction: do you need it?

A lot of people ask me if they should get “accent reduction,” the process in which a foreign-language speaker (or someone with a stigmatized accent) goes to a specialist to learn a more “standard” accent.

Do you need accent reduction?  In my mind, you do if you fall into one of three categories:

1.)  People cannot understand you. You should know if this is the case or not.  If you have a difficult time being understood by co-workers, strangers or friends, you may be able to benefit from “neutral” accent training.

2.)  You are an actor or voice-over artist.  This is self-explanatory.  If you make your living through your voice, it is invaluable to be able to change your natural dialect.

3.)  You work at a job where you communicate with many nationalities.  Accent alteration is helpful if you work at a job where you have to communicate with people from different parts of the globe on a daily basis (for example, customer service).

The point should be to facilitate communication, not to make somebody over.  If I were an accent reduction specialist (I am not), I would not try to eliminate anybody’s accent entirely.  I would instead focus on softening the parts of the accent that hinder communication.

For the record,  I hate the term “accent reduction.”  There are no neutral accents, linguistically speaking.  If the world had gone a different route, African-American Vernacular English might have been the standard dialect, with General American English perceived as some kind of “incorrect” variant.  The point is, nobody is “reducing” anything.

That being said, I don’t believe this type of work is racist or classist if it’s done for the right reasons.  If you want to adopt a more neutral accent than the one you have now, I would recommend finding a qualified professional, one focused on the principles of good speech.  The point is to sound like yourself, not an airline stewardess from Iowa.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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7 Responses to Accent reduction: do you need it?

  1. zazikumar81 says:

    It is advisable for foreign actors to learn speaking a neutral accent or the different American accents to be able to receive roles when acting in New York. Though it is a challenging task to do, more opportunities will be available if a foreigner would be able to showcase one’s flexibility in owning the role assigned.

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  4. Brian says:

    I think I may have went too far with my own accent reduction classes, then; I’m American, but my current accent is Estuary (yes, I know- wrong country- but it allows me to be perfectly understood). I am sometimes pegged as a Fake Brit by other Americans, which I find odd- If someone asks me if I’m British, I’ll say outright that I’m not. Do I speak a neutral variant of English non-native to my country? Yes- but I say, neutral is neutral.

  5. Rachel says:

    I think the reasons you’ve put forward are good ones.

    Of course, “different” accents can be more easily understood in some areas than others. If you live in a multiculture, multi-ethnic area (such as a big city), having a stronger accent is less of a problem than in a rural area where the locals may not have heard a “foreign” accent before.

    And of course, you can get away with having an accent in English *much* more easily than in some other languages. When speaking Gaelic, I’m often told to correct my pronunciation on some words – because how you pronounce a word can drastically change the meaning of it, such as feurach “to graze” and fuirach “to live”. If you pronounce the first consonant slightly differently, you can throw something into a completely different tense. However, in English we just put different words in, so pronunciation doesn’t matter so much. That said, if a non-native speaker’s pronunciation is so bad that others honestly can’t understand what they’re saying, even if their grammar is perfect, they definitely need “accent reduction”.

    (That all said about Gaelic, I went to an Irish class and was told that pronunciation didn’t matter quite so much since there are more dialects and learners of Irish. And then I was told that I wasn’t pronouncing anything right and needed to put an “aw” into every vowel…)

  6. Katherine K. says:

    I totally agree with this post. As an ESL teacher for over 20 years, there is nothing wrong with having an accent. The key is being understood by others. Generally, it is best if you can speak Standard American English, as that is considered quite neutral.

    However, the other part of speaking is fluency and intonation. These are two features that will help you sound more “native” even if you have an accent. I offer a very inexpensive course that includes live meetings with me to help you.
    Use CODE: SPEAKENGLISH for a substantial discount.

  7. Adam says:

    “As long as others understand you…” Sure. Clarity of pronunciation is definitely important for the clarity of message. I think there is something else as well though…

    The way we speak is grounded in our bodies and in our cultures. There are traits and characteristics associated with dialects and accents and everybody knows this. Just think about all the stereotypes different accents get. If you’re choosing a particular accent because you just feel more comfortable in its context that’s perfectly fine.

    If you want to master a new accent rather than just winging it I’d recommend making sure you have a solid base with:
    1. Deconstructing the task ahead
    2. Selecting the right units relevant to you
    3. Sequence the materials correctly to maximize the outcome with minimal effort

    You can check out my Pronunciation Master course too: