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.