On accent reduction and accent discrimination

As a dialect coach living in an international city like Edinburgh, I receive a lot of emails from non-native speakers requesting help to “reduce” their accent. This reflects a general tendency of non-native speakers feeling the need to modify the way they speak English. My clients fear they won’t be able to advance their careers if they don’t alter the way they speak and more generally their accents make them feel self-conscious. As a linguist, dialect coach and non-native English speaker myself it breaks my heart when I see any kind of accent discrimination. In response, I decided to share my thoughts on so-called “accent reduction” both as a linguist and a dialect coach.

I want to start first with discussing the term “accent reduction” because both the term and the practice are controversial. Firstly, I want to say that there’s really no such thing as “reducing” an accent. You can’t just erase some of your features – you will have to replace them with something else. So really, what accent “reduction” is (or should be in my opinion), is teaching you a NEW accent. That per se is not a bad thing. Learning a new accent is like learning a new language: a lot of fun and super interesting. But accent “reduction” regularly includes judgments as to which features are “correct” and which ones are not. It implies that some accents are more acceptable than others. Furthermore, the word “reduction” infers that your natural way of speaking is too much for people who are unfamiliar with your features to deal with it. It implies that your accent is overwhelming for them and that you should take it down a notch. There are two ways to tackle the issue of intelligibility between accents: 1) speakers of non-standard accents modify their accents, or 2) we normalize non-standard accents via increased exposure in media. Option 1) is the norm but why do we rarely see option 2)? (Those two options should not be mutually exclusive by the way). “Accent reduction” is sometimes also referred to as “accent softening”, which isn’t any better because it implies that your native accent is too harsh and unpleasant. Because “accent reduction” and “accent softening” have these negative connotations, some accent coaches instead use the terms “accent modification” or “accent neutralization”. But even those terms still assume that there is an issue with your native accent in the first place that needs changing. If there is no term for this practice that doesn’t make it sound discriminatory it probably isn’t just the term that’s problematic. The practice itself is too, so it’s about time we changed that practice.

I often have prospective clients email me saying that they want to learn how to speak with a “neutral accent”. It takes time to undo this pernicious concept – there is no such thing. Every accent has certain things people associate with it. Even the prime examples that are taught as “neutral” accents, i.e. Received Pronunciation (RP) or Standard American English, are anything but neutral. If you learn how to speak with an RP accent, for example, you might fit right in at Buckingham Palace but when you use that same accent in let’s say Scotland or the United States, people there will still perceive you as an outsider. In short: The “neutrality” of an accent is relative to its surroundings. Therefore, if you want to learn a “neutral” accent, you first have to understand your environment and which accent might be perceived as “neutral” in your specific context.

Just as the neutrality of an accent is relative to its context, so too is its intelligibility. No accent is inherently unintelligible. It all depends on how exposed your listeners have been to your particular accent. Let’s take Scottish accents as an example. Sadly, it’s a trope in movies to have one token Scottish character that is not understood by other characters. The Scottish Disney princess Merida is a great example. In “Wreck-It Ralph 2– Ralph Breaks the Internet” there’s a scene where Vanellope meets all the Disney princesses . All the princesses are having a grand time chatting and laughing with each other but when Merida speaks, nobody seems to understand her. In her own movie “Brave”, however, Merida’s accent’s intelligibility is never questioned; everybody understands her every word. Opposed to all the other Disney princesses (who mostly speak with a Standard American accent), every character in “Brave’” is either Scottish like Merida, or is used to hearing Scottish accents every day. It seems like all the other Disney Princesses haven’t been exposed to much Scottish yet and that’s why in that setting Merida has a harder time being understood than in her own movie. Being better at understanding the accents you hear most often is a natural thing; and it’s not just bound by geography. Film, TV and radio have the great power to show us places AND ACCENTS that are far away from home – which is why so many people have no issues understanding RP even though not many live in places where that accent is frequently spoken. RP is not inherently more intelligible than any other accent but because we are exposed to this particular accent so regularly through film, TV and radio, we are used to its sounds and it seems more intelligible than other accents.

Humans are social animals and as such it is only normal to want to fit in. People are amazing at adapting to their environments and it just so happens that the way you speak is massive part of fitting in. Without noticing, many people participate in something called “code-switching”. Have you noticed that you pronounce things differently when you speak with your granny than when you chat with your colleagues? That’s code-switching. Changing the way you speak depending on your situation is a way of signaling that you and your conversation partner are part of the same group. Your accent is never completely stable, it might change when you move to a new place, or when you give a formal presentation, or when you go back home and speak to your family. Learning a new accent to be used in let’s say a business environment is just another part of code-switching. I have always been an accent chameleon myself. Growing up in Switzerland, speaking a rural Solothurner Swiss German dialect with my family, I accommodated more to my Bernese Swiss German speaking friends when I went to study at uni in Bern. It made sense for me to do the same with my English once I got proficient in it and it felt like my second native language. Studying English at uni, I was obsessed with British television and films so naturally I picked up RP. This didn’t last long: when I met my partner, and through him many American friends and family, I switched my pronunciation to fit in and feel comfortable in this new context. Standard American is the accent I speak with most often now but living in Scotland for the last 4 years, I regularly find myself using Scottish features, especially when talking to locals. Learning all these varieties of English made me more comfortable speaking in each setting respectively. But having learnt these varieties doesn’t mean I lost my native accent – I jump right back into Solothurner Swiss German the moment I’m around my family in Switzerland. It just means I added more tools to my accent belt and have a multitude of accents now that feel like home.

The way you speak can tell other people a lot about your identity and as such accents are an integral part of our identity. It only takes a few instants of hearing someone speak to form an opinion of that person, be it a positive or a negative one. That’s a lot of judging in a very short time based only on how your conversation partner speaks. This kind of judgement can help us identify people who are like us but also results in linguistic discrimination. What’s more is that people tend not to be aware of this judging based on accents – they quickly get an impression and map that to whatever bias they already have about that accent. But they might not be able to articulate that their bias is based on how their conversation partner is speaking. This kind of discrimination affects non-native speakers the hardest and is often intertwined with racism and xenophobia. But it’s not only a problem for non-native speakers. Every now and again, surveys circulate on the internet ranking English accents from “sexiest” to “least intelligent-sounding” and so on. Speakers of RP are regularly rated as “very educated” while Scousers are labelled as “less intelligent” even though of course there are many highly educated people from Liverpool. Part of the reason why this discrimination is happening – and will continue unless we change the game – is the way accents are represented in film, TV and on the radio. Currently, the same few stereotypes are ubiquitous: New York accents for mobsters, Scottish for ruffians, and Valleyspeak for the “dumb” blonde, among others. Film, and other media are such an important part of people’s lives and can have a real influence on how we perceive ourselves and those around us. Let’s take Disney as an example: Many kids grow up with and love Disney’s productions. They play a powerful part in a child’s development of their identity – and of their opinion of others. Given this immense impact of Disney movies on young minds, it’s especially sad to see that they don’t feature a wider variety of accents, but instead keep regurgitating standard accents with only every now and then sprinkling in the same few harmful stereotypes of non-standard accents. Representation also matters in regards to accents! Until we change the representation of accents in film and other media and redefine what kind of character speaks with which type of accent, the issue persists and speakers of certain accents will feel self-conscious about their accent and might even feel the need to modify it. As a dialect coach, I hope I can contribute to changing this rhetoric and help getting more non-standard accents featured in mainstream movies and TV shows without relying on stereotypes.

Accent discrimination is very wide-spread and often goes unnoticed or ignored even though it can have real implications for a person’s career and in general makes the world a less welcoming, more judgmental place. We linguists can actively seek conversations and try to educate people on accent discrimination and stop people from even forming those hurtful biases against nonstandard accents in the first place, let alone let those biases affect their practices. That means reforming the way we teach languages and educating as many people as possible. Moreover, nonstandard accents need better representation in movies, TV shows and on the radio and employers need to actively stop accent discrimination in the workplace. Doing all this is a biiiiiiiiiiiig task that will take years if not decades to achieve. In the meantime, accent discrimination is a reality for many people and it causes them to be treated unfairly based on their accent. That’s why I offer accent coaching for non-actors. I want to teach my clients that having a non-native or a non-standard accent isn’t a bad thing while also building their confidence. I want them to see how awesome their own accent is and that they don’t need to feel ashamed of it or even lose it. Plus, by teaching them a new accent instead of modifying their own accent, they will learn to appreciate another accent IN ADDITION to their own. I hope my sessions will make them want to share what they’re learning with their friends and colleagues. The more accents we are aware of and exposed to without leaning on stereotypes, the less we are biased against accents and their speakers and this way we can hopefully start making an end to accent discrimination.

Tony Curran’s accent in ‘Outlaw King’

screenshot (150)I talked a lot about Chris Pine’s accent in ‘Outlaw King’ because it is always interesting to see how well non-Scottish actors adopt Scottish accent. Actors speaking in their own country’s accent rarely get much attention but they are worth talking about as well.

While watching Outlaw King, it quickly became clear that Chris Pine succeeded in acquiring a Scottish accent. A few vowels here and there could have been more crisp or fronted and his intonation could have been improved, but other than that he did a great job. Throughout the movie, my attention therefore was drawn to another actor: Tony Curran as Aonghus Óg Mac Domhnaill aka Angus Macdonald.

Tony Curran was born in Glasgow so I was surprised when he didn’t speak with a Weegie accent. The following two features particularly stuck out as different from Curran’s native Glaswegian accent:

  1. Many English accents have two types of L: a light L and a dark one. Try and say the words ‘live’ and ‘fill’ out loud. Can you feel how your tongue touches the front of your palate in ‘live’ but that there’s more action in the back of your mouth for the L in ‘fill‘? The L in ‘live’ sounds quite light while the L in ‘fill’ has a darker quality to it. In Outlaw King, Curran pronounces syllable-final Ls in words like ‘kill’ with a light L when most English accents usually use a dark L in the same position. Some Scottish speakers (Glaswegians for example) even tend to vocalise syllable-final Ls. This means that those speakers use a vowel instead of an L. For these L-vocalising speakers the word milk sounds more like mi-ook ([mɪʊk] instead of [mɪlk]). Light Ls in syllable-final position like Curran used them as Angus Macdonald are usually found in Irish accents or for non-native English speakers.
  2. Interestingly, Curran’s accent as Angus Macdonald also lacked GOOSE/FOOT fronting. You might remember this feature from my previous posts about Pine’s Scottish accent. There I mentioned that the GOOSE and FOOT vowels are usually fronted in Scottish accents, i.e. pronounced with the tongue closer to the front of the mouth. Irish accents are known for pronouncing those vowels quite far in the back. You can hear Curran do that when he says ‘look’ or ‘lose’.

Both these features are commonly associated with Irish accents. Now, you might wonder why a Scottish character like Angus Macdonald should use Irish features. To solve this riddle we need to know more about Curran’s character in Outlaw King: Aonghus Óg Mac Domhnaill was from Islay, the southernmost Island of the Hebrides and as such very close to Ireland. Islay was traditionally Gaelic speaking and it can be assumed that Angus must have been a Gaelic speaker as well. In the movie you can even hear Angus’ people singing songs in Gaelic when Robert the Bruce and his companions are on Islay. Gaelic is one of the few remaining Celtic languages and closely related to Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge) spoken in Ireland. Gaeilge had an immense influence on the way the Irish people spoke English and – considering how closely related Irish Gaeilge and Scottish Gaelic are – it makes sense that Scottish Gaelic had a similar influence on Scottish English speakers such as Angus Macdonald.

Like I mentioned before: foreigners attempting a Scottish accent usually receive more attention than actual Scotsmen in the same movie. People naturally also focus on the main character’s accent more than supporting characters’. This doesn’t mean that supporting roles aren’t any more important or that supporting actors don’t have to put in as much work. As a Scotsman, Curran could have probably used his own, Weegie accent for this role and nobody would have complained. By deciding to use a more accurate accent, Curran indirectly tells us more about the character he’s playing and he therefore adds another layer to his acting. Curran clearly showed that accurate accents are important for all characters – no matter how minor or major they are. The fact that Curran took that extra step and spoke like an actual Gaelic speaker from Islay shows great dedication to the role and adds to the audience’s enjoyment of the movie.

‘Outlaw King’ update or ‘About Intonation’

I promised to update my post about Chris Pine’s Scottish accent in Outlaw King once I watched the full film – so here we go 😀

First off, I need to say: Watching this movie made me ridiculously proud, happy, and grateful to live in this beautiful country. The scenery alone made this movie a joy to watch!
More importantly, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Pine’s Scottish accent turned out to be much better in the film than the trailer suggested. Two of the features I discussed in my previous post were much less of a problem in the film.

  1. Short Scottish vowels: In the movie, most of Pine’s vowels were actually quite short and crisp and only every now and then a lax vowel sneaked back in.
  2. GOOSE/FOOT fronting: Pine’s GOOSE/FOOT vowels were also mostly nice and fronted in the movie. In some smaller words especially, such as ‘do’ or ‘you’, Pine could have still fronted the vowel a bit more. But all in all they were quite good.

So two of the three aforementioned features were quite good in the movie. As a dialect coach and linguist, of course, I like to focus on details so please consider the following paragraphs as me splitting hairs.

Even though Pine’s Scottish accent turned out to be quite good, there was one feature that still wasn’t quite convincing. Arguably, this is also one of the most difficult linguistic features to grasp and successfully adopt when learning new accents: Intonation. In other words: the rhythm or musicality of an accent. Intonation differs a lot between accents but it is also speaker and situation-dependent. Emotions can also have a huge influence on a person’s intonation. For example, a speaker’s intonation might reflect the cheerfulness or seriousness of a situation and bounce between pitches more or less often, respectively. This can make intonation a rather abstract, variable feature and therefore harder to grasp than e.g. the pronunciation of certain vowels. This all being said, let’s take a closer look at Pine’s intonation in ‘Outlaw King’.

To find out what went wrong with Pine’s accent in ‘Outlaw King’ we first need to look at Pine’s native intonation, and then compare it to Scottish intonation.

In the above video you can hear how Pine’s native, i.e. American, intonation follows a stair-step pattern. This means that his intonation only moves between two or three pitches at the most and therefore there’s not a lot of bouncing happening. Mostly his intonation sounds like walking up a few steps and then walking down some more steps until he reaches the end of the sentence. As a result, most of Pine’s sentences end on a falling note.

Scottish accents, on the other hand, have a tendency to bounce a little more mid-speech and especially go up towards the end. This sometimes can make simple statements sound like questions. You can see this Scottish intonation in the following video of Colin Beattie, MSP for Midlothian North and Musselburgh.

In this video, Beattie speaks with a rather mellow Scottish accent, which is probably what Pine aimed for in order to be understood by a wide audience. Nevertheless, Beattie clearly ends most of his sentences on a rising note.

So to wrap this up: Kudos to Chris Pine for doing a great job at speaking with a Scottish accent in Outlaw King! Except for having some troubles with the Scottish intonation, his accent was convincing. (Quite a few Scottish people on Twitter thought so as well by the way 😀 )

Also, it’s important to remember: Accents are not easy to learn and Scottish accents especially can be rather difficult because people are not exposed to them as much as RP or General American accents, which feature in many movies and TV series.


‘Outlaw King’ and Chris Pine’s Scottish Accent

Living in Scotland and being surrounded by the beautiful sounds of Scottish accents has tuned my ears to the many varieties spoken here. It also made me rather critical of foreign actors’ accents who are playing Scottish characters.

        The most recent attempt is Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce in Netflix’s upcoming movie Outlaw King. First off: As a resident of Scotland, I am very excited for this movie and can’t wait to watch it when it comes out. As a dialect coach, I watched the trailer with a more critical ear. You can see that Pine worked on his accent (with Dialect Coach Eleanor Boyce) and his speech certainly has a Scottish flair. Bear in mind that due to trailer’s shortness there wasn’t much data for me to analyze Pine’s accent completely- so how good his Scottish accent really is remains to be judged after watching the full film. This being said, I did notice a few features that could’ve been improved to make Pine sound more….Robert the Bruce.

  1. Scottish vowels tend to be quite short and crisp – unless they are at the end of a word, or followed by an R or a voiced fricative, such as the [v] in flavour or the [ð] in bother*. Most of Pine’s vowels in the trailer are a tad too lax and too long. American accents are known for their long, lax vowels; and Pine doesn’t quite drop them in certain words. He nails the short vowel in the word family but the vowels in land, or must are just a wee bit too long still.
  2. Intonation is another important aspect of Scottish accents and differs heavily from Pine’s native American accent. American intonation tends to drop towards the end of a sentence while Scottish accents are more bouncy in general and usually don’t end on a falling note. Pine’s intonation in Outlaw King sounds more American than Scottish but it’s hard to judge intonation based only on a handful of sentences.
  3. These two aspects are very subtle differences and might not be susceptible to the average person’s ears. This last feature, however, immediately outs Pine as a non-native Scottish English speaker. It concerns the vowels that belong to the GOOSE and FOOT lexical sets, i.e. all the words that have the same vowel as the words goose and foot. In Scottish accents those two vowels are identical and – more importantly – they’re usually fronted. This means that those two vowels are pronounced further in the front of the mouth and therefore sound more like the vowel in the French word tu.

As a comparison here are these two vowels in standard RP, pronounced in the back:

and this is what the same vowels sound like when they are fronted:

These vowels crop up EVERYWHERE and they’re usually tiny words that don’t seem super important, like you, or do, which makes consistency a challenge. These are exactly the words that Pine trips over: his GOOSE/FOOT vowels in the trailer are almost all pronounced in the back instead of being fronted, as for example when he says “Do whatever you must” or “I do not care”. The Devil is in the details.

These are the problem areas I noticed while watching the trailer. But Pine also adopted some Scottish features perfectly and I would like to mention one in particular. The way Pine pronounces his Rs in the trailer is spot on. Rs can vary immensely from one accent to another and Scottish accents are known for tapped and sometimes even trilled Rs (resembling Spanish or Italian Rs). American Rs, on the other hand, are much more relaxed and as a result sound rounder, or softer. Pine successfully drops his American Rs and pronounces them as a true Scottish outlaw king would.

In summary, I could see a few issues with Pine’s accent in the trailer but other features were spot on. I’m looking forward to updating my analysis of Pine’s Scottish accent once I’ve seen the film!

I’ll keep you posted 😀


*This phenomenon is called the Scottish Vowel Length Rule for those who’d like to know more 😉


One of the four pillars of accent work is People aka Cultural Context. This refers to the fact that a person’s accent and voice quality is heavily dependent on their cultural, social and socio-economic background. For example, an upper-class person doesn’t sound like a person from a lower socio-economic background. Likewise,  a teenager’s accent is very different from a 50-year old person’s even if they are from the same town. This pillar of accent work is crucial for acting. To deliver an accurate performance you need to know your character’s cultural background because it is indirectly reflected in their speech.

In the above video you can see a great example of this: Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. In that movie, Robbie plays her character at different stages of her life and she perfectly reflects the age difference with her voice. The older a person is, the stiffer their vocal cords become, and therefore a person’s voice sounds deeper as they grow older. Margot Robbie nails that aspect in I, Tonya – besides also doing a spot-on Northwestern accent in general.

[FYI: The above video is a delight to watch in its entirety. Erik Singer offers wonderful analyses of soooo many movie accents! Check out all his videos if you’re looking for good (and not-so-good) examples of accents in movies.]

Being coached on your native accent

A person’s accent is not rigid – it changes a lot throughout your lifetime. It’s not just your vocabulary that expands the older and wiser you get. The way you pronounce words, your stress pattern and even your intonation can change drastically. It all depends on what you experience, where you spend most of your time, and who you talk to. That change is most apparent in people who moved away and now live in another country than the one they grew up in. As silly as it sounds at first – this means you can lose your native accent.

It’s good to see that some actors are aware of the flexibility of their accent and decide to work with a dialect coach to regain their native accent – like Gary Oldman did when he had to do an English accent after having lived in the States for a long time. Like Gary Oldman says in the interview above, a speaker might not even notice that some foreign features slipped their way into their speech. Sometimes tiny nuances can make or break an accent and a dialect coach can point out those small features that the actors themselves aren’t aware of.