Before I set up London Speech Workshop I had never heard of Accent Softening. So I was even more surprised when I realised that for many non-native speakers, the experience of having an accent can be really challenging.
I found that while for some it was fine, for many non native speakers, their experience ranged from frustration through to stronger feelings of not belonging, or even being discriminated against. When I realised this, I knew that there was useful work to be done. Not necessarily in reducing an accent but in giving people the tools to have a mastery over the language, to feel like it was their own.
A personal story…
Back at the beginning of when I started London Speech Workshop, I had a particular client called Damien. Damien opened my eyes to all of this. He was successful, intelligent and articulate and had lived in the UK for about ten years. He also had a rather strong French accent. I remember encouraging him to bring more of himself to the words as he struggled with a particularly tricky sound, and then stopping to ask him why in fact was he trying to lose his accent at all. His accent was lovely, I told him, and gave the impression of European Sophistication. And he said, simply, “It’s just as you said, I want to bring more of myself to the words, but I can’t be fully myself in this language.”
I didn’t even conceive of this at first, that having an accent could get in the way of being fully oneself. I just thought of accents as part of the wonderful melting pot of cultures that is the UK and London.
I realized that what I was doing was far more important than softening an accent. It was actually bang smack in the middle of a theme I was and am truly passionate about. Supporting people to get rid of any blocks in the way of living full and happy lives.
And with that I was hooked!
I became so interested in accent I did my psychology masters dissertation on it, exploring the complexities of accent and it’s relationship with identity. I found there were two seemingly opposing forces, on the one hand to hold onto ones accent, because of a loyalty to ones birth country and on the other hand the desire to reduce an accent so as to fit in.
My aim with the Serlin Method was to create a method that would respect both needs. I was very clear, this wasn’t about ‘becoming neutral’—God forbid! It had to be respectful of people and their native identity, whilst providing tools and guidance to help people be fully themselves in the language, and to share their ideas and thoughts without interference. So softening an accent was not the end, simply a means to the end of confident communication in English.
And you know what? I think we achieved it. Now 8 years later, we are fortunate enough to have helped hundreds of people feel more confident and in control when they communicate. It’s not that they lose their accent, they don’t need to. It’s that they know exactly what to do to have a mastery over the language. It is no longer a hazardous path, but a helpful friend.
If you are reading this and are a non-native speaker then please know that you don’t have to compromise your identity to have true ownership over the language, the aim is not to become accent free (or at least there is no need for that) the aim is to show through the way you speak that you know how to operate the language like a pro. And it is totally possible!
And if you are a native speaker—then I hope this blog will give you an increased perspective, empathy and understanding for your non native friends.