American Accent Acquisition, or Why I Hate the Term “Accent Reduction”
Updated: Oct 17
As a Dialect & Accent Coach, I frequently assist clients in achieving a more General American (GenAm) dialect, as it is often perceived as a region-less, inoffensive, and articulate version of English. Clients who seek this service typically do not speak English as a first language, and their fluency will vary. Occasionally I’ll work with native English speakers with a thick regional dialect, such as Southern American, who desire a GenAm dialect for the same reasons as a non-native English speaker. There are several factors which may cause someone to seek this service. One is the impression that their accented English is holding them back from advancing in their desired career. Another, and it is related to the first, is a deeply rooted anxiety related to the sound of their own voice.
Often this anxiety is triggered by a well-meaning comment made by someone in their past: “Your accent is holding you back.” Or, more often, the repetitive question that every English as a Second Language (ESL) speaker is subject to: “Oh you have an accent, where are you from?” These may seem like harmless questions – but nearly every one of my ESL clients have expressed at one point or another how hurtful they can be. We all want to feel like we belong, but these questions have an “othering” effect. My clients typically view it as a personal milestone when the frequency of these questions subside.
When seeking the services of a Dialect Coach to deal with these issues, one may be forced to use an industry standard search term: Accent Reduction. I find this phrase problematic as the word “reduction” is inherently negative, but the phrase is also inaccurate. An accent is not a thing which can be reduced. A person can change how they speak, but the resulting voice is no more a reduction than a butterfly is a reduction of a caterpillar. The phrase also implies that the coach is inherently trying to reduce one’s sense of identity to match America’s societal norms, like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
I also view the problem as related to the systemic racism that plagues the United States, and indeed many English-speaking countries. If an employer suggests an employee’s accent is “holding them back”, that implies that their clientele would have negative association with the employee’s background, perhaps making assumptions about their level of education, heritage, or even moral compass. This concern is not unfounded – our inherent biases cause us to make snap judgements about people based on their voice. But why is this the ESL speaker’s problem? Why is it not instead the responsibility of the employer, or the client, to shift their perspective? Whether by conscious choice or not, we often make the snap judgement that someone’s first language being anything other than English is a weakness. Rather, it is a strength – only about 20% of Americans are bilingual.
Let me be clear, I am not specifically referring to individuals who do not speak fluent English. Nor does this specifically relate to ESL actors who may be trying to play a native English speaker, in which a perfect accent would arguably be necessary to uphold the artistic integrity of the project. Rather, I am referring to those accented English speakers who do have a mastery of the language, which again makes up a majority of those who tend to seek out these services.
As a Dialect coach, one small way that I can combat this attitude is by replacing the term Accent Reduction in my practice with the term American Accent Acquisition. I want my clients to understand that they are acquiring a new skill, not reducing some part of themselves. While the chances that one born outside the U.S. is going to adopt a perfect GenAm dialect is low, I can give clients the tools to get 95% of the way there. At the end of the day, I want individuals I work with to know that my goal is to build their confidence, reduce the anxiety associated with their speaking voice, and help them view their voice as an asset rather than a liability.