In a nutshell, an accent is simply the way an individual sounds when he or she speaks. It is a manner of pronunciation that is unique to an individual, location, or nation and is a natural part of spoken languages. Different factors make accents identifiable. They can be a reflection of one’s ethnicity and social, cultural, and geographical background.
One’s geographical location influences the variation in accented speech. When an individual has a “foreign accent,” it is typically due to the influence of their first language. In such a case, a person speaks a particular language using the rules and sounds of another.
Thus, an accent is considered a communication difference as opposed to a disorder. However, there are instances wherein accented speech can interfere with effective communication. Some issues that may arise involving accented speech are:
- difficulty being understood;
- needing to repeat oneself frequently;
- distraction (when the accent draws attention from the message); and
- negative attitudes towards a particular accent.
These issues may create a negative impact on a person’s career and academic goals, self-esteem, social interactions, and daily activities (Brady, Duewer, & King, 2016; Carlson & McHenry, 2006). As such, the help of a speech-language pathologist (SLP) or other specialists (such as linguists or ESL instructors) may be sought.
However, since an accent is neither a speech nor a language disorder, the SLP’s goal is not to treat or remediate. Instead, SLPs design a program to facilitate accent modification or reduction.
Goals of Accent Modification/Reduction
Improving communication skills is the primary goal of accent modification. In many instances, this involves working on an individual’s intelligibility so that their speech is easier to understand and does not cause distraction. Accented speech can be measured using a scale that rates accentedness, intelligibility, and comprehensibility.
When setting goals with a client, it is important to set realistic expectations. Instead of trying to completely neutralize an accent or sound like a native speaker, a more achievable goal is improving intelligibility and efficiency of communication. This can be done through a program designed to develop pronunciation, syntactic, and intonation skills.
Training and Strategies
A person may choose to do accent modification training on their own with the help of apps, books, or language software. However, instructor-led training provides significant advantages, including a more individualized program and instruction, immediate feedback, and timelier progress. Instructor-led training may either be one-on-one or as part of a small group, seminars, or workshops. The sessions can be done in-person or online.
At the start of accent modification training, the SLP will conduct a comprehensive check on the individual’s language history. This will include:
- where the individual has lived and how long they have lived in that area;
- all languages spoken by the individual;
- the age of acquisition or when target language was first learned;
- the context in which the target language was learned (whether in school or community);
- length and age of exposure to each language spoken;
- the languages used at home, at work, and in social settings.
During accent modification training, the SLP will focus on the following key areas:
Segmentals – Refers to a language’s individual sounds. Each language contains a unique set of vowels and consonants that are used and combined in distinct ways to form words.
Suprasegmentals – These are the prosodic or rhythmic features of speech, which may significantly impact one’s intelligibility when modified.
- Stress or putting emphasis on particular parts of a syllable
- Intonation or the vocal pitch contour or patterns that affect a word’s meaning
- Pitch or how high or low someone’s voice is perceived
- Timing or rhythm, which refers to the duration of sounds and pauses
- Loudness or the speaker’s vocal intensity
Language – Pertains to an individual’s proficiency in the target language, including syntax, morphology, vocabulary, and social use.
To achieve the goals set by both the client and the SLP, the following accent modification strategies are recommended by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association:
- Listen and imitate – repeating modeled sounds or speech
- Phonetic training – teaching phonemes explicitly through descriptions and articulation
- Minimal pair drill – differentiating similar sounds using listening discrimination and verbal production
- Contextualized minimal pairs – differentiating similar sounds in a meaningful context
- Visual aids – using visual cues to assist sound production
- Tongue twisters – practicing phrases and sentences that use successive consonant sounds
- Developmental approximation drills – using a developmental sequence in learning sounds of the target language
- Practice vowel production and altering stress patterns
- Reading aloud
- Recording speech for progress monitoring, assessment, and feedback purposes
- Auditory discrimination training
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