When immigrants arrive in the United States, they often bring with them a wealth of knowledge and skills, but one unexpected hurdle can impede their progress: accents. Despite years of studying English in their home countries, many immigrants find that their spoken English is not as easily understood as they had anticipated.
In this article we'll explore what it means to have an accent in English, how it affects your career, and how American accent training or accent reduction can benefit your career.
An accent refers to a distinctive mode of speaking. It includes how each sound of the language is pronounced. It also includes how these sounds build up into speech, including elements such as word stress, intonation, and rhythm, known in linguistics as “suprasegmentals.”
First things first, everyone has an accent. Even Americans can speak with varying degrees of “accent”. You may have heard of the “Valley girl” accent of some Los Angeles residents, or the Boston accent that drops all the “r’s” in the prototypical sentence, “I parked my car in Harvard Yard.” However, there is a General American Accent (or standard American accent) that is most common and universally understood in the United States. This is the accent usually taught in accent training courses.
The question "Why do I speak English with an accent?" has probably crossed your mind before. It's a universal frustration for immigrants to realize that they have an accent in English despite potentially having studied English for years. While they are many reasons for this, the primary reason why immigrants from non-English-speaking countries often have distinct accents is because their native languages utilize different speech patterns and lack certain sounds present in the American accent.
Here are some of the ways in which immigrants sound "non-native" to native speakers:
As a non-native English speaker, your native language will have equipped you to pronounce many of the sounds of American English correctly. However, there may be sounds in English that are simply missing in your native language. Today, you're likely substituting those missing sounds with similar ones that exist in your native language. For instance, as a Spanish native speaker, you may be substituting the Spanish "r" for the American "r" sound. This substitution may sound completely unnoticeable to your ears, but a native English speaker can tell the difference and may be confused if they don't hear the sound they're expecting. And this is where miscommunication can happen.
This is made all the more complicated by the fact that English spelling is unreliable when it comes to pronunciation. The letter "o" alone can make 7 distinct sounds and 1 combined sound: the "o" in orange, clock, and radio are all pronounced differently! Or, take the word "color". If you are a native Spanish speaker, you'd likely pronounce it phonetically as a “k-oh-l-oh-r, which is very different from how an American would pronounce it: [k-aa-l-uh-r].
And there's more - sounds are only one part of it. Our native language also determines other speech patterns in English. Take speech rate, for example. If our native language is syllable-timed like Hindi or Spanish, meaning each syllable gets the exact same amount of time, we may be speaking in a rhythm that English speakers aren't used to, since English is a stress-timed language. Therefore, we might be naturally speaking at a rate that sounds faster to a native English speaker.
Having an accent is a natural part of being a non-native English speaker. Your accent carries with it important history and identity. As the Asian-American scholar Amy Chua states, “Having an accent is a sign of bravery.”
At the same time, the unfortunate reality is that biases against accents persist. It can take just 30 milliseconds of speech (enough to say “hello”) for a listener to identify a person’s ethnic or cultural background as being different from their own, and make snap judgments about them, whether positive or negative.
Studies have also shown that having an accent can mean fewer opportunities for the accent holder, including an up to 16% reduced likelihood of getting hired.
The decision to modify one's accent is a personal one. Erasing all traces of an accent to sound entirely American is difficult and may not be desirable for many. Instead, the goal should be to strive for clarity and confidence in spoken English.
While learning the American accent is not not an easy task that can be done overnight, it is definitely an achievable goal, which can have significant benefits for your career, including:
Clarity in Communication:
Accent reduction primarily focuses on improving the clarity of spoken English. When immigrants reduce their accents, they become more easily understood by native speakers, colleagues, clients, and supervisors. Clear communication is essential in professional settings, and it can prevent misunderstandings that might otherwise hinder career progress.
Improved pronunciation and articulation instill confidence in immigrants. Feeling confident while speaking English can lead to more effective communication, better job performance, and enhanced networking opportunities. Confidence is a key factor in professional growth.
Broadened Employment Prospects:
One of the most tangible benefits of accent reduction is the expansion of job opportunities. Many employers prefer candidates with clear and easily understandable English, especially for client-facing roles or positions that involve frequent communication. Reducing your accent can make you a more competitive candidate in the job market.
Accent reduction is not just about getting hired; it can also impact your career trajectory. When colleagues and supervisors can effortlessly understand your ideas and contributions, you are more likely to be considered for promotions and leadership roles. Effective communication is a hallmark of successful leaders.
For immigrants working in industries that involve client interactions, such as sales or customer support, clear communication is crucial. Clients are more likely to trust and do business with professionals who can communicate effectively. Accent reduction can help foster stronger client relationships, leading to increased sales and customer satisfaction.
Enhanced Cross-Cultural Competence:
Immigrants who reduce their accents often develop cross-cultural competence, which is a valuable skill in today's globalized world. They can bridge cultural gaps and relate to diverse clients and colleagues more easily, strengthening their positions within international teams and markets.
For immigrants in management or leadership roles, effective public speaking is paramount. Accent reduction can enhance your ability to deliver powerful and persuasive presentations, motivating your team and stakeholders.
Influence and Authority:
Reducing your accent can contribute to a commanding presence. Leaders who speak clearly and confidently are more likely to influence their teams and make a lasting impact on their organizations.
Accomplishing accent reduction often involves a deeper understanding of the culture and language of your host country. This process can lead to a richer cultural integration experience, making you feel more at home in the United States.
Accent reduction is a journey of self-improvement. As you see progress in your pronunciation and communication skills, your self-esteem and sense of accomplishment will soar. This newfound self-assuredness will positively affect all aspects of your life, including your career.
American accent acquisition is a physical skillset, just like learning to play guitar or going to the gym. It takes time to build it, but it's absolutely attainable with practice.
Below are some of the strategies for achieving success with accent modification. For more detailed tips, you can check out our Guide on Mastering the American Accent.
Professional accent coaches can show and teach you the muscle movements required to produce sounds in a way that can be recognized as the “American accent.” Observe and imitate these physical skills until they become second nature. On BoldVoice, you learn from Hollywood accent coaches who teach you the most proven tactics to gain the American accent.
Practice makes progress. The best way to see progress is to be diligent about your accent training program. On the BoldVoice app, we advise you to repeat the words and sentences multiple times, while listening to your own voice recording and comparing it to the coach's voice. This allows you to develop your phonemic awareness, which refers to learning to differentiate between sounds you've never had to before.
As you practice, it's important that you get feedback on your pronunciation mistakes by a trusted source, like an accent coach, a native-speaking partner, or even technology! On the BoldVoice app, the advanced Artificial Intelligence automatically scores your pronunciation in real-time, and gives you detailed feedback on how you can improve.
Just like with going to the gym, the results of accent reduction training will not be apparent on day one, but with patience, they will come. It's important to trust the process and to be consistent. The best way to be patient is to make a brief accent training session a part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth. This way, you'll be able to stay consistent with your program and build considerable skill day-after-day.
Accent reduction is not about losing your cultural identity; it's about enhancing your communication abilities to thrive in a new environment. The benefits of reducing your accent as an immigrant are numerous and far-reaching. It can significantly improve your communication skills, expand your job opportunities, strengthen client relations, and even help you become a more effective leader. Moreover, the personal growth and self-confidence gained from this process are invaluable assets in both your professional and personal life.
With dedication and the right accent reduction training program -- such as the BoldVoice program led by Hollywood accent coaches and supplemented by AI feedback --immigrants can overcome the hidden challenges of accents and unlock their full potential in their chosen fields.