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Accent Modification

Do you want to change the way you sound?

By
Lisa B. Marshall

My husband was born and raised in Panama. Spanish, of course, is his first language. He came to the United States when he was in his 20s and has been living here ever since. He often says that he’s illiterate in two languages. Of course, he’s just kidding.

He does, however, have an interesting accent. His Panamanian family and friends say that now he speaks Spanish with an American accent. In fact, the last time we visited Panama, he was frequently mistaken for a foreigner. However, my friends and family, here in the U.S., all notice that he has a slight Hispanic accent when he speaks English.

Why am I telling you this? Because a listener who wanted to remain anonymous asked me how to get rid of her accent. So, instead, I shared my husband’s story. But the reality is EVERYONE has an accent.

What Is an Accent?

It’s impossible to not have an accent. I speak with a regional accent, a Philadelphia accent. And I also have a foreign accent. Cuando hablo en Español (when I speak in Spanish) I’m a “gringa,” because Spanish isn’t my first language.

The question is, does it matter?

That’s a tough question…one that I struggle with. Part of me knows that accents are a natural part of spoken language; part of my identity.   However, I also know from the research (and personal experience) that accents affect people’s perceptions. Based on accent, people make judgments about competence, attractiveness, and personality (Fuertes, Porter, & Ramirez, 2002). Turns out that depending on the listener, certain accents are more appealing than others, and we base impressions on that.

In my experience, people have strong feelings when it comes to accents. Some people like my Philadelphia accent, while others don’t. One listener even wrote to ask, “Why haven’t you learned to speak with a standard American accent?” (That’s the Midwestern hybrid accent that most national newscasters use.) But I know, even if I did learn that, some listeners from other countries still wouldn’t like my American accent! (Then what, learn a commonly liked accent, a British accent, like Madonna?)

Be warned: Changing an accent, especially when you’re an adult, is hard work. It takes dedication and lots of practice. It’s not easy to do, but it is possible.

Does Your Accent Cause Trouble?

Ultimately, each person needs to decide if an accent is interfering with communication. Is it significantly impacting job performance? Your advancement? Are you avoiding conversations in your everyday life? Only you know the extent of the problem. If people ask you to repeat yourself so often that you’re frustrated or people focus more on your accent than they do on what you’re saying, then yes, it becomes important to learn how to communicate more clearly.

However, be warned: Changing an accent, especially when you’re an adult, is hard work. It takes dedication and lots of practice. Experts suggest 30-45 minutes of daily practice; that’s 30 to 40 minutes a day for at least six months to hear a difference in natural conversation. It’s not easy to do, but it is possible.

Some people refer to this as “accent modification” or “accent reduction.” I like to think of it as accent acquisition; you’re learning a new accent, as an actor (or as my husband) did.

So what are some of the things you can do?

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About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall
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