An authentic ‘English Accent’ or simply ‘Clear Speech’ – what are the aims of accent reduction?

Accent reduction is a term being used more and more frequently in the world of English speech teaching, but its goals are not necessarily clear. Over the past five to ten years numerous courses have appeared aimed at learners of English offering to ‘lose’ or ‘get rid of’ a non-native accent. The concept is strange in linguistic terms – when you learn a language, you generally ‘do’ things: you learn grammar, you memorise vocabulary, you improve your listening and speaking skills. So where does ‘losing’ anything come into this? Is it an action? Is it a lack of action? It almost suggests that an accent is something you carry around with you and by being careless with it, you might suddenly find that it has disappeared – left on a park bench, perhaps.

A clearer analogy would be to lose weight, but you won’t ‘lose’ your accent by not speaking. The term, I believe, that we are looking for is a positive one – to ‘learn’ pronunciation. When a student reaches a very high level of pronunciation, control over accent follows and therefore choice, but nothing has been ‘lost’.

Learning pronunciation is like learning any other aspect of language – when you learn grammar, you start with the basics – subject, object, verbs, nouns, adjectives, then you move on to tenses and conditionals and gradually you reach a higher level until you know all the grammatical constructions of a language, fluency ensues. Pronunciation is the same – you learn the different areas of pronunciation in roughly the following order:

  • Consonant Sounds
  • Vowel Sounds
  • Spelling to Sound Rules
  • Weak/Strong Structure
  • Joining Techniques
  • Word Stress
  • Sentence Stress
  • Intonation Patterns
  • Shifting Stress

A student who has mastered all of these areas, will have a considerable amount of control over their speech. In English, this is something that all advanced learners could benefit from but have rarely ever studied if they have learnt only through ‘General English’ classes or self study.

This explains why most of the students who come to study with us are not aiming to sound British or American or learn any other specific accent – they are simply searching for this part of the jigsaw of English language that they have never been offered in language schools. Their goals are nearly always clear speech – to communicate in English with native English speakers without having to repeat their words or speak unnaturally slowly. This is a logical part of learning English and should not be confused with the different but loosely connected (through phonetics) world of regional accent modification – where somebody (normally a first language English speaker) wants to alter a local accent.

There are a great many examples of people who use clear speech yet have a ‘non-native’ accent, and the results are wonderfully expressive – the person commands authority through clarity and confidence whilst showing their origins. Some notable examples are Tamara Rojo, the Spanish ballerina:

and Werner Herzog, the Austrian film maker:

In the clips it is clear that each would have to correct certain sounds and structures in their speech if their aim were to adopt a British accent (I will post a pronunciation analysis of each at a later date), but each one of these people speak with enviable command and clarity. An example where pronunciation skills obstruct the delivery of speech would be Marina Abramovich, the Serbian performance artist – in this example it is sometimes difficult to follow the narrative:

There is undoubtably a huge stigma attached to accents – barely a week goes by without an article in the press questioning why people want to speak like the queen or whether there is a link between xenophobia the world of elocution. Perhaps if we could move away from the idea of ‘losing’ or ‘getting rid’ of accents and into the progressive world of ‘learning’ pronunciation, gaining control of speech and clear communication, a more positive and progressive approach could be born and a greater understanding of this bizarre language we live with reached.