Accents are important. They are an intrinsic part of who we are. They are part of our heritage. They tell the story of our background and our culture. So, why would we want to get rid of them? Well, as much as they are an asset to us, accents can be a double-edged sword, and for many they represent a conflict. For, while on the one hand, our accents are an integral part of our identity; on the other hand, for a non-native English speaker living and working in the UK, an accent can feel like it gets in the way of effective communication in English. And that can be a problem.
So how do we square this circle? Well, firstly, its about defining the goals and the challenges. At London Speech Workshop, we are very clear: the mission is not about losing one’s accent, because accents are too important, too essential to what makes us unique. Instead, it is about helping people to be clear and easily understood; to share their ideas in a way that does them justice; whilst still feeling confident that when they open their mouths to speak, what comes out represents who they are.
It is a reality that speaking English with an accent can lead to misunderstandings and sometimes confusion. It can lead to people asking the speaker to repeat themselves, or looking blankly, or trying to figure out what has been said. But this is no reflection on the speaker! It is the mechanics of language that lead to the issues. This is because each language has a different set of sound building blocks. So, for example, when a Spanish speaker speaks in English, they bring their own set of sounds to the language. The consequence of this is that they will pronounce English words with Spanish vowels and this can lead to confusion. Until the speaker goes back to basics, and learns the vowels that are ‘missing’ from their set of building blocks, it is very difficult to make changes. For example, let’s take the difference between 'ship' and 'sheep': in many languages, there is one sound for both these vowels, whereas in English there are two – so how an earth is a person suddenly meant to know how to create a new sound, and where to use it? And so they use one sound, which understandably, leads to confusion.
So our work at London Speech Workshop is clear: we make sure that sounds that are leading to any kind of confusion or misunderstanding are addressed, and we make sure the intonation patterns that make English work really well are being used. These two simple things, plus a few tricks and tools along the way, mean that the non-native English speaker feels they can get under the skin of English, and that they can communicate with clarity and a sense of confidence. It means that, when they open their mouths, what comes out is what they want to come out.
And where is the accent in all this, I hear you ask. It is there in that it is part of the speaker and who they are, but not there in a way that impedes the communication process.. It won’t slow things down or disrupt the flow or get in the way of the speaker connecting with others. So that is what we mean when we talk about accent reduction. It is making sure that it enhances the conversation, rather than impedes it.