Why some people try to chip away at their accent
Accent reduction is 'strange idea to begin with,' linguistics professor says
Whenever Mariya Miloshevych met new people, they were left with the impression that she ate borscht, drank Vodka and went by Natasha.
These were not tidbits the 21-year-old revealed in conversation but what the listener presumed solely based on her accent, she said.
"I'd rather people just approach me and talk to me as they would do with any other person than try to use my accent as an icebreaker," she told CBC Toronto.
"When people would hear my accent, it'd be a couple of jokes about being Russian. I would correct them with the fact that I'm Ukrainian and that would just be written off," she said. "A lot of small things people assume about you as soon as they hear your accent that are totally wrong and don't relate to the kind of person you are."
Miloshevych left Ukraine for Toronto in 2013 with a strong grasp of the English language overlaid with what she calls a "really thick Ukrainian/Russian accent."
As an aspiring actress, she deemed that accent "one of my weaknesses."
"It's really hard to get in an audition room when you have an accent. Rather than being treated as the other people, you are falling into a category of foreigners who can't really maintain the role."
Spent $1,000 on accent reduction
Feeling it hindered her craft and shut her out of dream gigs, she sought out accent reduction from voice and dialect coaches, taking sessions over three years in Toronto and Vancouver, where she now resides, and doling out over $1,000.
"It was really expensive. And it was really time-consuming," Miloshevych said. "If someone else wants to reduce their accent, it takes time and it takes daily practice."
She credits the exercises with softening her accent and feels it is now only a subtle one.
"Now I'm considered as someone on their own level, as a person who just sounds slightly different but doesn't necessarily comes across as someone who is foreign."
Accent reduction and accent modification refer to terms used by businesses that strive to change how a person pronounces in English. The problem is, there is no standardization in the field and so the approaches can be defined however the business wants to, says Murray Munro, a linguistics professor at Simon Fraser University.
"When I hear the expression 'accent reduction' that already makes me uncomfortable because it somehow implies that the stronger the accent, the worse it is and you want to trim away at it and get rid of it and that's not necessarily true."
Several Greater Toronto Area businesses provide the service with different philosophies: be a clear communicator versus sound like a local.
It is the latter Munro is skeptical of.
"There's actually no scientific evidence that you can take a second-language learner off the street and make them sound like a native speaker," he said.
Munro said he does not want to suggest no one will ever sound native-like, particularly, if they're an adult learner. But it is not a common phenomenon.
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'It's possible to reduce the accent'
Toronto-based speech pathologist Bonnie Gross recognizes that it is difficult to lose an accent entirely. But having worked with hundreds of clients, she said "it's possible to reduce the accent. I do it every day with people from all over the world."
A long list of professionals have used her accent reduction service at SpeechScience International over the last 15 years.
For her, she said, the goal is not to lose an accent.
"People's accents are very caught up in our identity and our sense of self and our pride in our language. That I wouldn't even begin to take away unless they want to; they want to be completely North American sounding."
Gross noted that the accent, at times, is not what's tripping up the speaker at all. It could be voice projection or the pace at which they speak.
"Those are areas that have nothing to do with accent but have to do with communication. So it's my job not only to do the accent assessment but to find out if that's the real issue."
Demand exists for accent reduction
Melissa James, a speech language pathologist and owner of Well Said: Toronto Speech Therapy clinic, said her accent modification business sees roughly 30 clients every week who want to work on their accent.
Her approach includes several exercises, she said, including having her clients listen to how they pronounce a sound versus how a native-English speaker does.
"We do an assessment of the errors that you are making. And then once we know, we can prioritize what's most important for you."
"Someone might say, 'It's really important for my 'th' to sound like a 'th' and not a 'd' or 'z.' And so we can work through that and train them to pronounce 'th' in the way that people in Toronto pronounce it."
As a researcher, Munro calls accent reduction a "strange idea to begin with."
"People can communicate effectively and yet sound different from the rest of us. The idea that they somehow need to contort themselves or change themselves … is really unfair."
However, he added that some people who speak with an accent do need to work on pronunciation and there is a "valid place for pronunciation instruction when it is done by qualified teachers who are honest about the possible benefits."
"The solution is not to tell them that they need to reduce or eliminate their accents. What they do need is focused training to help them make themselves understood."
Intelligibility is key
Gross said most often, her clients feel or have been told their accent is affecting their job prospects or that they can't be understood. Employers approach her, too, wanting to refer an employee.
"Someone will call me from a company saying, 'I want to send so and so to you. We want to promote him. He's so smart, he's so good — we don't understand him or the clients don't understand him.'"
For Munro, whether you speak with a "foreign" accent or like a local, intelligibility is key. But "having an accent is not the same thing as lacking intelligibility," he said.
People often confuse the two, he said.
"We've shown quite conclusively that it's possible to have a very strong accent and yet be perfectly easy to understand, to be perfectly intelligible, be a good communicator."
The Accent Effect is a CBC Toronto series looking at accents and how they might shape the way we are viewed by others and the way we view ourselves. Share your experience at firstname.lastname@example.org or call our VoxBox at 416-205-2595.