Upon meeting other individuals, one of the primary aspects we notice about them, aside from their physical appearance, is their voice and the words and manner in which they chose to communicate their ideas and thoughts. Within seconds, we as listeners have the capacity to discern among female vs. male voices, whether one sounds breathy or horse, nasal vs congested, fluent vs stuttering, or has articulation differences, including whether or not the speaker is native or non-native to our country of origin or if they have a regional accent. It has always been fascinating to us how our brains can piece together all the complex incoming auditory information about the speaker’s pitch, vocal quality & resonance, fluency, and articulation abilities within seconds to infer critical information about who we are talking to. Now as our communicative partners continue to speak, we gain further insight on their personality, style, confidence, cognitive levels, and social skills based on the structure and sophistication of their sentences, the vocabulary they select, the slang used, the non-verbal messages they exhibit, the way they interact and include you into their conversation, etc. Furthermore, our perception of all this auditory information is also bound by our experiences, perception, and world knowledge.
Now close your eyes, imagine that you are in a dark room where you can’t see anyone but the person next to you starts speaking. Although you cannot see a face, you instantly know it is James Earl Jones. How do we know this when we can not see him? JEJ has a radiant voice that is highly distinguishable due to its low pitch voice and the resonance that shapes it. The manner, pace, and pattern in how he phrases his utterances is unique to him. We also know that he speaks with an American accent. The moment he says a word, people around the world know where he is from and can associate him to characters he voices. There are particular vowels and consonants, as well as sound pairings and suprasegmental features (e.g., stress, intonation, etc.), that are unique to the American English accent. So when a non-native American English speaker is speaking in this language, they superimpose their native language’s phonological and suprasegmental rules onto American English. The result: an accent is perceived to the native American English listener. According the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, they provide the following definitions as outlined on their website (www.asha.org), “Accents are variations in the execution of speech characterized by differences in phonological and/or prosodic features that are perceived as different from any native, standard, regional, or dialectal form of speech (Valles, 2015). Accents are marked by variations in speech-sound production, prosody, rate, and fluency (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, & Goodwin, 1996).”
Let’s Outline American Accent Management Training
American Accent Training, Accent Modification Coaching, Pronunciation Coaching, American Accent Management Training or Coaching are all synonymous terms for individuals seeking to learn more about the American accent and how they can effectively increase their ability to be understood. They seek assistance in this area typically to advance in their professional careers or personal endeavors. As women who love learning about different cultures and languages and have made a career out of listening to how people speak, we are passionate about delving into accents, as we all have one. Our accents are a part of who we are, they are natural and normal, and our accents help us to connect with our community, culture, and individuality. As our SLP crush, Robert McKinney (2019) stated in what we at Vybrence call the accent modification bible, “The phonology of each language is unique, and if a non-native speaker is unable to produce particular sounds in the new language, miscommunication may result. In addition, speech produced with patterns dissimilar to a target language may cause listeners to focus on the delivery and not the message. Many non-native speakers devote time and energy to mastering the pronunciation of a target language because they believe that changing the way they speak can help them attain the personal and professional success they desire. Accent modification is an elective service that assists clients in achieving their goals, and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are especially well-suited to provide it.” (p. 16, 2019) This excerpt resonated with us. We do not seek to “change” and “eliminate” one’s accent. This is not possible, nor ethical. As McKinney (2019) points out in his text, various research studies show that there is a sensitive period in which children are able to obtain an accent if immersed in it; however, the ages of this period vary. One thing that is certain is that this sensitive period in accent attainment is not available once it closes around the adolescent years, as we transition into adulthood (McKinney, p 17-19, 2019). It’s very mysterious.
So let’s dive deeper into the goals of an accent management program. We have seen numerous websites claiming to “get rid” of accents (yes we are cringing at the thought), promoting a plethora of expensive videos or tools to self-coach yourself out of your accent (I mean….really??), and making promises that their methods of service delivery are the most effective, yet they are not supported by research. If you see this, run! Do not waste your time or money. Please know, however, there are wonderful accent management coaches and companies who are certified and do provide an excellent program for their clients, but you have to do your homework! The key to deciding on a program is to set attainable goals or intentions of what you want to achieve, do your research, and find the fit. Here are several questions you may want to consider:
What are the credentials and background of the instructors?
What does the company or instructor provide, such as a viable program and if so, what does the program include? Resources? Home practice?
What would a typical session look like?
How can this be tailored to me to meet my personal and professional goals?
Are there any supplemental courses or programs to further my skills?
What other services are offered?
What is the service delivery model? Virtual? In-person?
How flexible is scheduling?
Does the company or instructor provide free screenings or consultations?
Can I use my professional development money to pay for sessions?
Keep in mind that every company and/or instructor have their own style and methodology. At Vybrence, our goal for our accent management / modification client is to become clear, effective, and confident communicators when speaking in American English. Our program does not teach you English. If that is what you are seeking, then working with an individual who is trained in ESL may be to your advantage. Our program is designed to analyze all your sounds in isolation, syllables, words, sentences, and in conversation, as well as examine your prosody, stress, and non-verbal communication. We utilize the PESL program and all of our American accent management instructors have obtained PESL certification. In addition, we are also corporate speech trainers and members of CORSPAN, an international organization of SLPs who specialize in communication assessment and training for businesses and professionals. Once the differences are assessed, then our instructors create a tailored program to educate clients about the differences that are impacting communication. Most of our clients typically have additional goals that are incorporated into our program and often seek assistance and guidance in professional communication, such as public speaking, conferences, writing, etc. We purchase for you a lifetime subscription to an unlimited online practice program. We also offer advanced courses that focus on using the skills learned in our 7- or 12-week program in more realistic situations (i.e., presentations, debates, negotiations, etc.), as well as further examines other elements and features of communication that extend beyond the sound level. This would include intonation, stress, non-verbal communication, rate of speech, etc. For more information, do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to the programs, all Vybrence American accent management instructors are licensed speech-language pathologists (SLP), which is very advantageous to our clients. But before we get into why, we need to stress the following point: having an accent is not the same as having an articulation or phonological disorder. Yes, we are SLPs; however, we are also accent instructors. They are two separate entities. Accent modification training services or American accent management training is elective and does not generate a diagnosis, as there is no disorder. We will never refer to sessions as being treatment, nor refer to our accent management clients as patients. Insurance cannot be billed as this is an elective service. The use of any speech-language therapeutic method or programming will not be utilized in sessions. So, let’s back up a little to where having a SLP may be advantageous in your accent management journey. As SLPs, we have an extensive background in many areas of communication, especially in articulation and phonology. We know the anatomy, physiology, and neurology of what that needs to happen in order for a particular sound to be produced successfully, that includes how the lungs, diaphragm, and vocal cords conspire to produce vibration that travels into the pharyngeal and oral or nasal cavity where it is resonated and then shaped by your articulators (aka tongue, lips, etc.). Not only do we know how the sound and your intended message is received and processed by listeners, but we have training in how a listener can interpret your actions and non-verbal behaviors, facial expressions, gestures, and body language. SLPs also have extensive training in analyzing sounds and transcribing it using the International Phonetic Alphabet transcription. What does that mean for you? Well, when we work with you and ask you to say or a sound or repeat words or sentences, we can hear differences and notate them using IPA transcription so that we are accurate. We could go on and on about this topic because we love what we do; however, one thing we want you to take away from this is be aware of accent modification coaches that do not have a background in linguistics, phonetics, or speech-language pathology.
Why do Individuals Seek Accent Modification or Management Training?
Unfortunately, we live in a society that can be discouraging and terribly discriminatory towards individuals who are of color, foreign, in the LGBTQIA+ community, and towards genders. We do not tolerate discriminatory acts and will always stand firmly with and support members of these communities. We have personally seen terrible act towards family, friends, colleagues in which they are not taken seriously, they are mocked or verbally abused, constantly asked to repeat themselves then ridiculed, do not get that call for the second date, do not advanced in their careers or education, fail to obtain that dream job or promotion, do not land roles they auditioned for, etc.
Clients seek out training from us due to wanting to enhance their communication. Our clients are made aware that their accent is a part of them and is something to be proud of. We teach our clients the sound and communicative differences between their native language compared to the American English language so that they can decide if they want to utilize the skill sets learned from our program and apply them in American English speaking situations. For our professional speaking/ communication clients, our goal is to provide clients with the skills that will enable them to easily communicate ideas and thoughts in a professional manner in a working environment or at public speaking events so that they are impactful, are recognized as an asset in their careers, and gain more confidence as leaders.
It still boggles our brains that one can make so many false notions about an individual based on their accent. For those reading who have had to endure this, we cannot imagine how exhausting it is to endure this. Know that there are people on your side who want to see you have your big wins without the worry of being discriminated against. We welcome all individuals into our program. So whether you are a CEO, manager, teacher, nurse, doctor, actor, FBI agent, IT consultant, data scientist, construction worker, etc. all are welcome and accepted.
Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M., & Goodwin, J. M. (1996). Teaching pronunciation: A reference for teachers of English to speakers of other languages . Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
McKinney, R. (2019). Here’s How to Do Accent Modification. Van Haren Publishing.
Valles, B., Jr. (2015). The impact of accented English on speech comprehension (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses—Gradworks (Publication No. 3708574). Available from http://gradworks.proquest.com/37/08/3708574.html