When moving to the United States, one of the things that surprises many immigrants is how much they struggle with their spoken English. Many of them have studied English for years in their home countries, and have a good, even excellent, command of the language on paper. Yet, when speaking, locals often don’t understand them or ask them to repeat themselves.
“I thought my English was A+, but when I got to the States, I couldn’t even order at a restaurant without being asked to repeat myself,”
Ecem, a new immigrant from Turkey, told us. Her experience is one shared almost universally by immigrants to the United States.
How is this possible? What’s at play here is not a lack of solid grammar or vocabulary. Instead, the root of the misunderstanding is usually a mismatch between the accent of the speaker and that of the listener. In this article we'll explore what it means to have an accent in English, why working actively on your accent can help your career, and specific tactics to help you be better understood.
What is an accent?
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.”
Non-native English speakers who grew up outside of English speaking countries are very likely to have a distinct accent. Let's explore why that is.
I've been speaking English for years. Why do I have an accent in English?
Simply put, different languages are composed of different sounds. If you're a non-native English speaker, your native language will have equipped you to pronounce many of the sounds of 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. 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 letter “r.” If you are a native Spanish speaker, you'd likely pronounce it as a “rolled r”, which is very different from how an American would pronounce this letter. In fact, most Americans would have a lot of difficulty in making that rolled R sound.
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.
Does having an accent matter for my career?
Having an accent as a non-native speaker is normal. 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 of biases against accents has been well-studied. 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 judgements 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.
So should I try to modify my accent, or reduce my accent?
As the speaker, you should make the decisions of how you want to sound.
Generally, erasing all traces of your accent for the sake of sounding completely American is not only a difficult task to achieve, but also for many, not desirable.
A goal that we recommend to non-native English speakers is to strive for being understood and feeling confident. It is when the accent gets in the way of being understood, or in the way of confidence, that it’s most worthwhile to work on it.
Modifying the key aspects of your spoken English that regularly lead to misunderstandings is often the most practical solution. With some work and practice, you can get to the point where you still sound like yourself, but as comfortable and confident in English as you are in your native language.
This skill can be especially helpful in career settings, such as:
- Job interviews, to ensure that you sound clear and confident in a stressful context
- Client-facing roles, where strong communication skills are an important factor
- Management roles, to ensure you can communicate with your team clearly, and be at your most confident during meetings, presentations, and public speaking events
How do you acquire the American accent and improve your pronunciation?
BoldVoice can help exactly with that. We view accent acquisition as 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.
The key to mastery is:
1) Learn from an expert. 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. BoldVoice's Hollywood accent coaches can show you the most proven tactics to gain the American accent.
2) Practice often. 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, meaning, learning to differentiate between sounds you've never had to before. BoldVoice allows you to do all of this. Additionally, it automatically scores your speech in real-time, and gives you detailed feedback on how you can improve.
3) Be patient. You've building new muscle strength. Just like with going to the gym, the results will not be apparent on day one, but they will come.