“Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery.”– Amy Chua
There are some who offer “accent reduction” lessons. Since our accent is attached to our voice which is attached to our being – our identity – accent reduction implies that, somehow, we are not good enough. It reminds me of “conversion therapy” where people are trained to suppress a part of their identity in order to fit in to some kind of ideal. What I think people are trying to help students with is pronunciation. This, of course, is key to being understood. Our varying languages use different muscles in the mouth and different breath patterns to create the sounds that make sense to native ears. By calling pronunciation work “accent reduction”, we are reinforcing the idea that individuals need to be “fixed” in order to belong. As a result, because “experts” are saying that you need to reduce your accent to be better speakers, students believe it and carry on with their English language learning with less confidence in their abilities. Why contribute to what has been a long-standing bias in many places? For instance, a “working class accent” in England kept you in your place and limited your social capital. Accents are so intimately connected to our sense of being. Think about what the word “reduction” implies. What are students reducing their accents to? As lovers of language, we know the impact words can have. I encourage people to reflect on their choice to use the words “accent reduction” by considering the limitations you are putting on yourself and the learner about how language can be spoken, and, how the words, “accent reduction”, can deflate the confidence in people who are making the courageous effort to speak in a new language.
I offer an alternative choice of words, simply, accent practice.
As actors work on accents to create a character, individuals practice to acquire an accent and explore their multi-faceted identities. An interesting example of accent modification depending on geography is Gillian Anderson. She has been known to speak in her American accent when she is in the United States, and in her British accent when she is in England. It is understandable that one may want to sound like a native speaker because they want to fit in and would feel more comfortable if they sounded like their peers. If this is a goal that will uplift a learner and instil more confidence, then accent practice can be a fun exploration. By calling it accent practice, and continuing to work on pronunciation, we are not diminishing their natural accent in English, instead, we are adding more to their communicative toolkit and allowing their authentic voice to blossom!