Accents 101


Let's start with the basics.


What is an accent?

Everyone has some basic understanding of what an accent is but it can be hard to explain it. An accent is the overarching term used to describe the way a person speaks – the rhythm, stress pattern, and pronunciation of vowels and consonants.

It is a unique cultural reflection of who we are and our life experience. It carries information about a person, where they lived, and the sounds they were exposed to.

Why modify an accent?

An accent is a reflection of the cultural exposure an individual brings. It does not however speak to a person’s intelligence, class or education level. Unfortunately, dialect differences can carry a stigma of inferiority as early as 9-to 10-years old children (Kinzler & DeJames, 2012). To reduce the effects of stereotyping, businessmen and women, actors, public figures, university students and many others may wish to improve their speech clarity.

Why do foreign accents exist?

The simple answer is our native language affects our ability to speak our second language.

  • Difficulty producing a sound in English that is not a sound in the native language

For example, the /w/ sound does not exist in German. It actually sounds like a ‘v’ sound instead. So instead of saying ‘VolksWagen’, you get ‘Volksvagen’.

  • Rules for combining sounds into words are different in English than the native language

For example, in Mandarin, combinations of 3 consonants (aka consonant clusters) do not exist unlike in English (e.g. strength, sprint).

  • Native language patterns of stress and intonation are incorrectly applied to English

English has unpredictable stress patterns. If you don't know the patterns, you may apply rules that are not correct. (e.g. PHOtograph --> PhoTOgrapher). If you incorrectly assumed the stress would remain on the first syllable, it would not sound correct.

How can I change my accent?

Practice and understanding. Ultimately, a consultant can provide personalized direct instruction and feedback to expedite this process but they can only teach you and help you learn. If you don’t do the practice and work on your own you cannot modify your accent.

Contact me if you are interested in accent modification services.

Resources:

http://www.asha.org/practice/multicultural/Phono/

Avery, P., & Ehrlich, S. (1992). Teaching American English pronunciation. Oxford [England: Oxford University Press.

Kinzler, K.D., and DeJames, J.M. (2012) Northern = smart and Southern = nice: The development of accent attitudes in the United States. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology in advance of print on-line.

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