Why Your Accent Doesn’t Matter- And When It Does

I love your accent.
I think the way each individual speaks so uniquely is one of the great things about people. As a lover of language, I enjoy hearing people playing with language.

Language is fairly arbitrary anyway. Over the years, a pattern of sounds develops into meaning something, so it does.

Even though I do love accents, I still have trouble understanding accents really different than my own. This isn’t for lack of trying- my life is dedicated to training my ear to hear how people make sounds, but the mind doesn’t like dealing with sounds that fall too far outside the pattern it’s used to.

What is “pronunciation” really?

There are 3 basic elements to how I categorize pronunciation: enunciation (how you pronounce individual sounds), intonation (how you emphasize a syllable in a word), and rhythm (how you emphasize words in a sentence).

Much like a song can be interpreted in many ways, see Bob Dylan versus Jimi Hendrix interpreting All Along the Watchtower, each person’s pronunciation is going to be similar and different to every other person.

Why your accent isn’t important?

Woman sitting at fire

In English, we use two of the most rare sounds in human language- active and inactive ‘th’. Only about 7% of the languages in the world use these sounds, so it happens to be one of the most incorrectly pronounced sounds by non-native speakers.

Many dialects/accents of English don’t even use these sounds, so it’s hard to even call it a mispronunciation. English speakers have heard these sounds pronounced so differently so often, there’s little to no problem with comprehension. (I just listened to ‘The Allusionist’ with my favorite accent coach demonstrating the way this sound is changing in a particular London accent. Check it out!)

People are hardwired to try to make sense of language. When we hear someone speaking with an accent very different from our own, we work hard at understanding this new pattern. You don’t really have to speak with native accent to be well understood, you just have to get close enough so that you meet their ear “halfway”.

A person speaking English who mispronounces a few sounds incorrectly is going to have less of a problem being understood. Look at French speaker Catherine Deneuve, German speaker Flula Borg, or Spanish speaker Salma Hayek. All of these people have very distinct non-native English accents, but they’re all doing pretty well acting in English language entertainment.

If you never work to adjust your accent and live in one place long enough, those people will actually adjust to your speaking style and have less of a problem understanding you. This is why I maintain that accents don’t matter that much. In this scenario, the listener does the hard work of retraining their hearing to adjust to this new speaking pattern.

When your accent does matter?

Barista behind bar

What if you’re planning on getting up on stage to give a presentation and want people who have never heard you before to be able to easily understand you. That means you have to do the work and retrain your speaking pattern to the expected listening pattern.

You can “screw up” each element of pronunciation and still be understood. Problems come up when all three elements are very different from the pattern the listener expects to hear.

Differences stack. When you mispronounce individual sounds, AND emphasize the wrong syllable in a word, AND speak in your native language’s rhythm, the listener is going to have to concentrate very hard to reinterpret your pattern to the pattern they’re used to hearing in addition to trying to understand the meaning of your words.

So your accent doesn’t matter, until it does.

How do I adjust my accent to sound more English?

If your goal is to improve your English accent, you probably want to work on all three of these elements at the same time. I am here to tell you that is not a great idea.

In order to change how you say each of those elements, you have to retrain your brain. And your brain hates changing! (Something you’re very aware of if you ever tried to build a new habit into your life.)

Starting with one skill then progressively building on it is the most time effective way to change your English pronunciation.

  1. Start with enunciation

    • There are a limited number of sounds you have to retrain yourself to hear and say. Like learning the proper form for various weight training exercises, once you know your tongue placement for an individual sound, you can focus on adding weight (skills) onto the form.
  2. Train your ear for intonation

    • Return to your childhood and rediscover the joy of exaggeration. Kids play with words to get a feel for how they sound. Draw your attention to the emphasized syllable, by holding that vowel longer than you would naturally.
  3. Imitate for rhythm

    • Slow down, then speed up. English has an irregular rhythmic pattern. The English ear is listening for emphasis, so the speaker must vary the length of syllables to catch the ear correctly. It’s not enough to just slow down, that’s just the first step. You must also be comfortable speeding up “important” words, if they aren’t the focus.

Using This Knowledge

People speaking at a restaurant.

Working with a pronunciation specialist is the most effective way to train these skills. But it’s not required if you’re willing to put in some extra effort.

Start keeping a record of when someone asks you to repeat yourself or you have trouble understanding someone. This is your guide to the areas you need to improve.

It does takes time to train yourself to know ‘why’ they’re asking you to repeat yourself. It could be an individual sound, the way you’re emphasizing a syllables in a word, another pronunciation area. Or it could have nothing to do with your accent. English vocabulary is vast and you may be pronouncing a word perfectly, the listener just might not know it.

Working with a coach helps take away the guesswork of what to focus on. It speeds up the learning process- it doesn’t do the learning for you. You still have to actually stick to the exercise routine and trust the system. This isn’t about overnight results, it’s about faster results.

Whether you work with a coach or not, lean on some English speaking friends. Most people are nice and are impressed you’re learning their language; they want to help you get better at it. You’re working hard to learn my language so you can interact with me and share ideas with me. I feel honored to help you improve and share your ideas with me.

If you found this post helpful, don’t forget to sign up for the Pronunciation Habit newsletter for more great access to pronunciation practice techniques. Feel free to like this post and share the knowledge with your friends on your favorite social network. (I’m @soundmeaning on Twitter!) We can all use all the help we can get with our goals.

Happy Practicing!

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