Accent Acquisition: How acquiring a new accent can achieve more effective communication

Hearing different accents is one of the joys of life in a multicultural country. 

I love the exploration into someone’s culture that an accent invites, it enriches the soundscape of our streets and adds to the fabric of our communities. With that in mind, it sounds counterintuitive that I would work with clients who want to ‘change’ their accents, as I believe their accent is an important part of their identity.

Instead of ‘accent reduction’ or ‘modification’, I offer clients the possibility of acquiring a new accent that could serve them better in an Australian context. I call this accent acquisition

Clients, usually professionals, come to me for a few reasons related to their accent:

  • They feel they’re not being properly understood
  • They report that people tell them they sound like they’re from a particular country, when in fact they’re not
  • People assume they are more, or less, educated than they are

Quite often my clients working on accents are in the health industry, in which they need to communicate meaning very accurately to the public, and in roles where there is an emphasis on communication such as university professors or lawyers. Often the problems are heightened with phone communication, when non-verbal communication can’t assist to relay a message.

You might think that the best approach for a client having difficultly being understood, would be to reduce or minimise their accent, but in fact that’s not quite right. What I do with these clients is I teach them to acquire a new accent. Their native accent is always there, but they have a new accent in their communication toolkit that can better serve them in an Australian context.

It would be nice to think that accents don’t matter, but they do. Listen to comedian and actor Bill Bailey give his humorous, but accurate, take on the power of accents (skip through to 9’55):

Let’s dig a little deeper into what an accent is.

An accent is a distinctive way of pronouncing a language, and is usually associated with a geographical area. Accents can be national or regional, and distinguish elements of speech including:

  • Rhythm
  • Intonation
  • Pronunciation of vowels and consonants
  • Phrasings (how words are grouped together)
  • Inflections

Think about the famous and lively Spanish accent. It’s very fast with short vowel sounds, which means it ends up with that short, sharp, fast sound with equal stress on every syllable.

Our own Australian accent, on the other hand, is flowing and long. It’s quite a nasal accent and us Australians don’t move our lips much when we speak (perhaps so as not to let the flies in?). It has a drawl-like quality and reflects our national laid-back attitude.

What makes some accents difficult to understand?

We all find some accents more difficult to understand than others, and it’s due to three elements: speed, the way certain vowels and consonants are pronounced, and the intonation pattern (the highs and lows of pitch).

To get your head around intonation, think about Indian languages – these are spoken with lots of ‘ups’ and ‘downs’. Intonation patterns can throw an English speaker’s ear out because in the English language we don’t convey meaning via intonation. You can understand, then, how speaking English with an Indian accent that retains that ‘up’ and ‘down’ can be difficult to understand.

Difficultly in understanding some accents is not only about mispronounced words, it’s about misinterpreted meaningWhere one accent may use tone, another may use volume, so it’s easy to see how one sentence could have different meanings depending on the emphasis put on certain words.

Interestingly, it’s not necessarily people for whom English is a second language who are difficult to understand. I’ve worked with clients for whom English was their first language, and indeed they were educated in English, but their phrasing was unusual and specific to the area or country in which they were raised. They needed to learn to phrase their sentences slightly differently to be better understood in Australia.

Take a listen to this snippet of audio which is from a client who recently came to see me. From Nigeria, English was his first language but as you can hear, he was a little difficult to understand in an Australian context:

Can an accent alter the perceived authority of a person?

It can, and it does!

All communication is cross-cultural, meaning it concerns the language and culture of the person speaking but also the person listening.

In Australia, we associate very fast speaking, and also high pitch, with uncertainty, lack of authority or nervousness and anxiety, whereas in another culture these two characteristics of speech could be perceived quite differently.

We all have the perception that speaking ‘well’ indicates that an individual is educated and intelligent. That is a myth. In some accents, for example, the ‘th’ sound is pronounced as the ‘f’ sound and it’s nothing to do with education, it’s merely a result of growing up in a particular area of the world.

Although accents are not a true indication of education, intelligence or authority, it’s easy to understand why someone might wish to change the way they speak in order to be perceived in a different, or more accurate, way.

Let’s return now to our Nigerian friend and take a listen to him reading the same passage as you heard earlier, but applying the new sounds and phrasing he learned in voice coaching:

I think you’ll agree the second recording is much easier to understand.

Accents are a beautiful reflection of culture, identity and upbringing, and are certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but at times it is necessary to learn a different accent to aid your communication in a different cultural context or professional environment.

If you feel that you’d benefit from acquiring a new accent, you can book a time to speak to one of our team at Viva Voice and learn about our voice coaching services.

Let’s finish where we started, with another video from Bill Bailey, this time on the accent of his current home in West London. Enjoy!