Last week, I taught a class in accent adaptation where most of the attendees were English speakers with a different language of origin. I was struck by how many of the people in the room were completely fluent in English and yet did not feel fluent.
Fluency in a language is both factual and perceptual. It is by definition the ability to communicate easily and articulately in a language. This can be about language knowledge but by design, it requires language confidence. An accent can limit this confidence even if the accent is not severely impacting our clarity. The fact is that the response of others to our accent has as much, or more, to do with whether it is impacting our speech as the way in which the accent shapes our words.
Accents are a line in the battle for equity in communication. Some of them do impact the articulation of words to the detriment of the language, I work in that space every day. However, some accents are judged more harshly than others without regard to how they impact pronunciation. This is reinforced by the fact that some accents are considered prestigious. When we hear a British (Oxford) or French (Paris) accent, even if it is quite pronounced, many of us find it charming — These are the accents of education and/or refinement. We enjoy these accents even if we have to listen harder or negotiate meaning while we are speaking to people with these accents. Many of us are not so generous when encountering an accent derived from Spanish, or Korean, or Arkansas. This seems to hold without regard to how much the accent actually deviates from the accepted norms for American English. Which means dear reader, that it likely isn’t about accent at all. It is more likely about Otherness and what ‘Others’ we are willing to accept even if it takes effort on our part.
As I mentioned before I work with speakers, some of which are impacted by accents from a different region or a different language of origin. I can help clarify articulation, pronunciation, and the application of voice to help communication. I cannot make society as a whole more welcoming when we encounter difference (I continue to try though). So this is where you can help me, and the many hard-working people that are working on their communication in my studio and thousands of others around this country. Listen more. Make an effort. Accept that you are part of every communication you are in and that you can make a difference in how another human feels about how they exist in a language. We already do this for some people, let’s try to do it for all people.
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Gina Razón is the principal voice specialist at GROW Voice LLC, a full-service voice and speech studio in Boston’s Back Bay. She has over 16 years of experience both as a teacher of voice and speech, and a voraciously curious voice user. Gina has worked professionally as a classical singer for over a decade and more recently as a professional public speaker. For more information on the studio or to book Gina visit www.growvoice.com