Accent Reduction: It’s Just Another Role
by Jennifer J. Pawlitschek
People come to America from all over the world, hoping to build better lives for themselves. Long ago, the vast majority of immigrants came to these shores with few skills and little education. Their motivations for leaving their home countries were often grinding poverty or intense political oppression. While people still come to America for these reasons, in recent years, as globalization and technology have increasingly opened our world, an entirely different type of immigrant has arrived here: the highly skilled, highly educated individual who has the qualifications and ambition to succeed in any sector of American society. This immigrant’s main obstacle? English speaking skills.
Highly educated immigrants to this country are typically fluent, or close to being fluent, in English. However, if their pronunciation and intonation are not consistent, some Americans will not understand them. Even if the majority of the words they speak are correct, the few that are incorrect will cloud meaning and intention. This can result in confusion and misunderstandings. When it is co-workers or supervisors experiencing this confusion or misunderstanding, the foreign-born professional’s ability to move forward in American society stalls.
What can a foreign-born professional do to address this situation? If you are worried about your accent, first remember that everyone has an accent. An accent comes from the way we hold our jaw, lips and tongue when we speak. It also comes from how often we move up and down in pitch. We each do these things in a particular way, and this results in particular sounds. Americans themselves have a wide variety of accents, and each has its own unique music. The problem for the foreign-born professional is that Americans are unfamiliar with their accents, and so are less able to understand them. Still, keep remembering that it is impossible to speak without some kind of accent.
Second, think of yourself as an actor. Follow the example of actors all over the world who have to learn many different accents and dialects for the variety of roles they must play. We all play many roles in life, and adjust the way we speak to the situation we’re in. I was in London a couple of years ago, and after awhile, I got tired of the Brits staring at me because they’d heard my accent. I started speaking with a British accent, and voila! I blended right it. Imagine that you too are playing a role, that of “professional”. That particular role might require an accent that will let your ideas to be heard, not your accent. Or maybe you are trying to communicate with a service worker who is confused by your native accent: once again, put on the accent they will recognize more easily and get the services you need. Perhaps you’re a teacher or professor with a room full of students from many places. They’ll likely all understand you if you use the standardized American accent, so use it. You don’t have to lose your culture or identity, just put on the accent as an actor does: for the role. You don’t have to use the accent all the time, just use it when you need it, and watch yourself move ahead in American society!
Jennifer Pawlitschek is a Voice and Speech coach in NYC who specializes in accent reduction, which she calls “Learning a Standardized American Accent.”