Let’s not get rid of your accent.


In a recent short film shown on BBC4 entitled ‘Accents Speak Louder Than Words’ we encounter a Polish lady, Kasha, who has lived in the UK for 27 years. She wants to change her accent because she feels she suffers discrimination as a result of it and so she hires an accent coach to help. Shortly after meeting her, the accent coach proclaims:

“We’ll do it! We’ll get rid of the accent if you really want me to.”


It’s a term that has become synonymous with English pronunciation training since a book entitled ‘Get Rid of Your Accent’ was published several years ago. But is the term helpful? And what expectations does the teacher create in using it?

The concept of getting rid of things is common in English. If you type ‘get rid’ into Google, its search predictor comes up with ‘ants’, ‘belly fat’, ‘hiccups’ and ‘spots’ as the most likely next words. Let’s take the example of ants. After a process which generally involves either relocating them or exterminating them with borax, they’re gone. You no longer have ants where there were before. You got rid of them.

Similarly if you have hiccups, you could try a variety of ways in which to get rid of them, from changing your posture, to drinking water or holding your breath. You could even ask someone to suddenly give you a nasty shock. BOO! And if your friends aren’t scary enough you can just wait. Hiccups go in time. And when they have gone, there is no spasm, no involuntary noise, nothing. Good job. You got rid of them.

So how does ‘get rid’ relate to accents? What is left when the accent is gone?

I don’t know what somebody without an accent sounds like. My best guess is that someone without an accent is someone who doesn’t speak at all.

I can sort of understand the concept from a learner’s perspective; you ‘have’ an accent, you ‘have’ hiccups and you ‘have’ ants in your house. So why can’t you just get rid of all of them? Well, the question remains:

What are you left with if you get rid of your foreign accent? 

Human beings are not born with the full range of English sounds and intonation in their brains and mouths any more than they are born with the speech sounds of the now extinct Gafat language of South Ethiopia. They would need to be learnt; getting rid of one English accent doesn’t magically make another one appear.

In other words, the terminology doesn’t work. It’s ridiculous. Let’s get rid of it.

And surely this is the job of the professional. Explain the process. Decide on the target. We’re not getting rid of anything. We’re learning the English speech toolbox, a clear, achievable goal, starting with the full range of sounds and moving on to intonation. It’s a toolbox that can help just about any second language speaker of English who wants to sound and feel confident.

Before offering to get rid of her accent, the teacher in the film rightly commends the Polish lady on how clear her speech is and squarely blames those discriminating against her as the cause of the problem. There are some lighter moments too, like when the teacher asks Kasha to imagine her mouth in the shape of “a fried egg or a boiled egg” and then asks:

“Which one do you think is best for speaking accents?”

Kasha incorrectly replies fried whereas in fact, it’s boiled (4:40 in the full film). She is quickly corrected on this matter (don’t worry Kasha, you’re not alone, I’d have got it wrong too).

Boiled eggs are better than fried eggs for speaking accents according to a short film on BBC 4 ‘Accents Speak Louder Than Words’.

Whether Kasha’s accent is the real problem here and whether her best investment in time and money is trying to change it, with or without the aid of egg metaphors, are questions worth considering. But I’m sure that if there is one thing she definitely does not need, it is negative reinforcements about her accent, and this includes any inexplicable notions along the lines of ‘getting rid’ of it.

So when Kasha finally concedes “I possibly will always speak with an accent” (9:45), it’s a moment full of both sadness and irony. Here was an opportunity to change that impossible goal. Terminology is important, it shapes our expectations, so my suggestion is this: let’s get rid of getting rid of accents.

View the full 10 minute film ‘Accents Speak Louder Than Words’ here (in the UK on BBC iPlayer), or a 2 minute version on BBC News here, which will work anywhere. 

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By | 2017-09-26T12:32:43+00:00 September 25th, 2017|Accents, Pronunciation|5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Paolo September 26, 2017 at 9:21 am - Reply

    I purchased “Get Rid of Your Accent” in 2012, a few years after I had moved to London. Like Kasha, I also believed that I needed to lose my native accent and speak in perfect RP if I wanted to be socially accepted. For a few weeks, I used it regularly – 45 minutes every day. Was it working? It was certainly helping me out refine the way I would pronounce words and specific sounds. Then I got bored and my initial commitment faded away, so I don’t really know whether it does the trick or not. I believe there’s a big space between “Masquerading one’s accent” and “Losing one’s accent”. While the latter is on the far end of the spectrum, most people reside somewhere in that space towards the Masquerading side. Leaving aside the matter whether anyone should really get rid of their accent (David Crystal once said that unless you’re an international undercover spy, there’s no reason why anyone should), I still like to think that one day I might speak with an Estuary accent, although the brilliant articles from Pronunciation Studio show us how many, little, tiny variations there are in a language; any language, not only English (intrusive R, anyone? Like, seriously??) Unless you acquired that as a child, it is very difficult and tiring to remember all of those variations while speaking!

    Regarding the BBC4’s show, I was so excited when I first saw it advertised on TV. Finally something about language, accents and their social implications, I thought. At the end of the 10-minute short film last night, I was left wondering “What have I just watched?” In fact, it is not clear what the film is trying to tell the audience. What’s the message? Is it that accents have social implications? Kasha, sweetheart, if you’ve lived in this country for 27 years you should know that too often people figure you out based on how you sound, and that has happened long before Brexit. Is it that losing one’s accent is possible and sounding more British actually helps? Well, I’d love to know what happened to Kasha, her trainer and the boiled egg… But unfortunately, the movie ends leaving us hanging in there.

    Finally, thank you Pronunciation Studio! In 2014 I booked a test with you guys to determine the level of my accent and what I should have done to “fix it”. I came around, had the test with one of your trainers and the outcome was pretty much what you said in your article: Paolo, do you really need to? I remember her saying. “You certainly have an accent, but your English and your speech production are already clear and correct. The refining part is something you can reach on your own with your commitment”. That showed great professional ethics and that day I walked out of that room like a happy man with a great boost in my self-esteem. Thanks!

    • Joseph Hudson September 27, 2017 at 5:53 am - Reply

      Hi Paolo,

      Thanks for commenting on this. I’m really glad we were able to help and in the way you describe.

      I think what you say about the film is spot on. It mixed several sensitive social issues – xenophobia, identity, political movements, ageing and care, but didn’t offer any evidence or attempt to tackle any in particular. I wonder if it’s really a story of somebody moving from a tolerant area of the UK to a less tolerant one. But as you say, we’ll probably never know unless a follow up is made.

      I think what it does show (though perhaps not deliberately) is that the personal experiences of even advanced and highly experienced users of English can be uncertain. Kasha is of a level where she has actually picked up some subtle variations in her speech – she switches from rhotic to non-rhotic English and when she compares pronunciations of WATER at the beginning, one of the versions is cockney, but she’s sure that whatever she says is wrong.

  2. Josep September 29, 2017 at 11:59 am - Reply

    Since I’m not in the UK, I can’t re-watch the programme, but I’d be intrigued to know who is Kasha’s accent teacher – could you tell me from the end credits? I think she is named Christine, but I can’t find her Web site.

  3. Christina September 29, 2017 at 9:58 pm - Reply

    Kasha does not mean Christine in Polish. The correct spelling is Kasia (Kate). Christina (not Christine) is spelled Krystyna in Polish.

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