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Got Accent?

“I love your accent! Where are you from?” This is a question I often answer with pride. “I am originally from Cuba; it’s a Spanish accent!” I started studying English as a child when my parents realized that we had to flee our island. A private tutor would come to my house to torture me with verb conjugations, vocabulary memorization, and dialogues. When I came to the United States, I couldn’t understand anyone, and nobody could understand me. I now realize it was because my teacher focused on grammar and my ear was trained according to his Cuban pronunciation. Over the years, I became a language teacher, a professional interpreter, and even a public speaker that loves her Spanish accent!

A person doesn’t have to be from a foreign country to have an accent. As a matter of fact, everybody has an accent. I can usually tell when I’m speaking to someone from New York, Alabama, Texas, or any region of the United States, and the same is true when I’m conversing in Spanish with someone from Spain or Latin America; their regional accent gives them away. Accents are unique and often reflect the characteristics and background of an individual, and as long as they don’t interfere with communication, they’re even considered exotic and romantic.
In the melting pot we enjoy in the USA today, we normally know or hire individuals who were raised abroad, speaking a language other than English. They come here looking for the American Dream; they work hard, they’re intelligent, highly qualified (and in some cases, overqualified), have great work ethics, and they have passed the necessary exams in order to practice their careers in their new homeland. They have a high level of English proficiency, yet their comprehensibility is hindered by a foreign accent. According to a study at the University of Chicago in 2010, when people have to make an effort to understand a heavy accent, they perceive the speaker as less reliable.
Its important to realize that all accents were created equal and no accent is better than another, and most importantly, it needs to be emphasized that an accent is not a speech or language disorder. However, I can tell you from personal experience that while one adapts to second language in a new country, a foreign accent can cause an individual great grief:

1. People look at you as if you are missing a few neurons, or you are from another planet. They don’t understand you!
2. Frustration sets in when you have to repeat yourself over and over.
3. You take great pride in expressing a deep thought and at the end, people only paid attention to your accent.
4. You avoid social interaction because you feel inadequate.
5. You don’t perform your task at your full potential because you are afraid of making mistakes.
6. You need a sheet of paper, but people think you asked for something else!

I remember, as a younger woman, teaching Spanish at Lakeland High School. I felt quite confident because I had the opportunity to speak in my mother tongue and I certainly spoke it better than any of my students, but I never knew why they laughed when I wanted to compliment them for winning a prize for good performance. “You are a wiener! You are all wieners!” I would say with great love.
These are the types of pronunciation problems that have a negative effect on someone’s daily life, job performance, career advancement, and self-esteem. Unfortunately, a foreign accent can make a person vulnerable to stereotypical judgments and prejudices. An English expression/accent reduction course can help not only the individual, but also the company that he or she represents.
With hard work and daily practice, a person can change the patterns of pronunciation. There are many online programs available that teach accent reduction, just as those that teach another language. However, without the feedback and guidance of a skilled trainer, it can be overwhelming to learn the complexities of the English language, such as intonation, stress, pronunciation, and rhythm. This type of training is usually sought out by professionals who need to effectively communicate – such as those in the medical, educational, or customer service fields, or those who regularly address large audiences.

Realizing the need for this service in our community, I have joined forces with Joan Davies, a speech and communication professional, team-teaching English Expression/Accent Reduction Training and Seminars. The goal of our training is improved communication and understanding, not accent elimination. I believe everyone should be proud of his or her roots and uniqueness.

Teresa V. Martinez, President
Institute of Spanish Communication

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