Does Your Accent Really Matter?

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In my opinion, accent matters far less than most people think. Obviously, you need to be understandable by the people you are talking with, but accents are incredibly common in English, and you shouldn’t worry too much about yours. Let me tell you why.

When I first started learning Chinese, I was very conscious of my accent. I thought that I needed a super authentic accent if I were to ever have good Chinese. Over time though, I came to realize that my North American-accented mandarin wasn’t a problem. People understood that my accent was just a part of who I am and where I came from. As well, there were far more pressing issues with my mandarin, like grammar, vocabulary, and listening skills. 

Since English is the most commonly spoken language in the world, there are thousands of accents. Some are native English accents, and some are learned-English accents. All of them, however, help you tell other people a little bit about who you are and where you’re from. For me, this is a great thing. Accents add color and nuance to a language like English, and I hope the next time you worry about your accent, you will remember that. 

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Accent vs Pronunciation

I think a lot of anxiety about accent is actually anxiety about mispronunciation of words. Although they are very similar, accent and pronunciation are not the same thing.  

Pronunciation is about making the words you say understandable. When you say the word “car” can other speakers understand your word is “car”? This is pronunciation. The ability to make and articulate the sounds of a language. 

Accent does involve pronunciation. For example, some English accents will pronounce words differently, like aluminum or water in British and American English. However, accent also has to do with intonation and emphasis. For this reason, accent isn’t so much about right or wrong, but about how you (and the people in your area) interpret and use English in your own way. 

What is a Dialect?

dialect is a linguistic term that is broader than accent, but more narrow than a language. Accent is primarily concerned with how a word is pronounced and intonated. On the other hand, a dialect encompasses these aspects, as well as the grammar and word-choice of a language. 

Some people feel that the difference between a dialect and an accent is based on the person who is speaking. A dialect differentiates between different versions of a language spoken by native speakers. Accents are for non-native speakers. So American English would be a dialect, while German English would be an accent. However, not everyone agrees with this view.  

There is also a political aspect of what does and does not constitute a dialect, but if you are not interested in linguistics it is hardly worth splitting hairs on these matters. Generally, we use the term dialect and accent interchangeably, with accent being used more often in common speech. 

Diverse English Accents

There are over one hundred English accents used by native speakers all across the world. The closer you look, the more unique accents appear. Some accents can be used across a large portion of a country, while others can be restricted to a single neighborhood in a city. 

Oftentimes, when I speak with people learning English, they like to say, “I want to learn American English, can you help me?” The difficulty with this question is that there are many kinds of American English, just as there are many kinds of British English, Australian English, etc.  

I think what most people want is something standard. An accent that doesn’t stand out as being foreign. The reality is that in most cities across the English-speaking world, there are hundreds of accents being used daily. If your pronunciation is understandable, then there is no issue with you contributing your own unique accent into the mix. 

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Can you Train an Accent?

Of course you can. The question is do you want to? Putting aside that an accent can be a proud mark of who you are, it is also very time-consuming to affect your accent later on in life. 

To change your accent, it will require training and constant practice to adjust the habits of how you speak. Since these habits have been reinforced over the years, this may take a long time, and may never be perfect. 

I would argue there are better ways to use your time. Instead of focusing on changing your accent, I think it is far more constructive to work on the fundamentals that you need to be a better English-speaker like vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. 

Instead of working on accent, you can learn technical terms, slang terms, or written-English skills that can make you a better English-user. Once you are perfect at these, and arguably no one ever will be, then you can worry about the cosmetic nature of an accent.

Will I be Looked Down on Due to My Accent?

Maybe. Although I would love to believe that society is becoming more accommodating to different cultures and different accents of English, I know there are still a significant part of the population here in North America that will look down on you for having an accent. 

The reality is that those people who look down on you for having an accent won’t change their tune even if your accent were perfect. The accent isn’t the problem, they are. And there isn’t anything you can do to fix that.

How Do I Raise My Child With a Specific Accent?

If your child having an “authentic” accent is important to you, then there are some things you can try to do early on. Changing an accent is much easier when children are younger because they are still absorbing the language they hear around them, but it needs to start very early. 

The best thing you can do is have a native speaker speaking with them as much as possible. I had friends go to houses and read storybooks to infants, if only so they can hear and internalize their accent. If that isn’t possible, use videos or tv to give them an introduction to the sounds of whatever accent you want for them to adopt.

One they are old enough, find them a teacher or tutor that has that accent and begin the process of them learning the language. It will take a long time, but if they grow up in that environment, they will adapt to that accent. 

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Final Thoughts

In my opinion, an accent is one of those things that is easy to worry about, but should be near the bottom on your list of language learning priorities. Speaking in another language fluently is already an incredibly difficult task, so pushing yourself to meet a “standard” accent is more than needs to be done. 

At best, it may help you fit in more with some people that you probably don’t want to associate with anyway. At worst, focusing on your accent will make you more reticent to talk in public. It will also take precious study time away from important English topics like grammar and vocabulary.

If people are having trouble understanding you, it may not be an accent problem. It is far more likely to be a pronunciation issue. In that case, have a teacher, tutor, or trusted friend listen to you speak and provide feedback. 

If you need help in this regard, and don’t have a friend or teacher to help, then we can help as best we can. Send us a message by clicking on the image below, or you can send us an audio clip by emailing us at contactthelearnersnook@gmail.com.

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