We love accents! We make our living helping people learn a variety of different accents, and we celebrate all the different accents that exist. We also know that accents are a big part of our identities and who we are as individuals, so we definitely aren’t interested in teaching everyone to sound the same. However, there are certain occasions where accents can cause problems for understanding, and those are the times when we believe it’s important to work on your accent.
One of those times is when an accent means that a speaker isn’t distinguishing between minimal pairs. This means that there are two words that only have one different sound, but have completely different meanings. For example: ‘live’ and ‘leave’. Speakers of many languages have issues differentiating between the long vowel ‘ee’ /iː/ and the short vowel ‘i’ /ɪ/. This could make it hard to tell the difference between the exclamations ‘I just can’t leave here!’, and ‘I just can’t live here!’. There’s a big difference in meaning, but only one very subtly different vowel sound.
For speakers of English at a more advanced level, accents can still cause problems, but in other ways. For example, someone who has lived their adult life in the UK, but grew up elsewhere speaking another language may have no problem with being understood, but may find that their tone or intention is frequently misunderstood. This can be because so much subtext and subtle emotional meaning in English is conveyed through intonation (the musicality of speech). In English, a falling tone usually conveys finality or certainty, so if (as a non-native speaker) you’re always using falling tones, due to the intonation patterns of your mother tongue, listeners may think that you don’t want to chat any more.
So changing your accent doesn’t mean losing who you are – in fact you can change your accent in ways that allow your true intentions to be understood more easily.
This blog was written by Helen Ashton and Sarah Shepherd, authors of Collins Work on Your Accent coursebook.
About the authors: Helen and Sarah are highly regarded freelance accent and dialect coaches with substantial experience working with students from all around the world. Having trained professionally at London’s influential Central School of Speech and Drama, they now teach both actors and non-native speakers of English how to speak with different accents.