English: Choosing an Accent Modification Program
by Sylvia Whiteside and Pilar Martinez
Canadians are used to and generally enjoy hearing different accents. However, when an accent makes it difficult to understand someone, communication becomes frustrating for both the speaker and the listener. If you feel that your accent is making it difficult for you to communicate effectively at work or in other social settings, you may want to consider training to improve how clearly you speak English. Below, two professionals, including one who is an ESL speaker, share their perspectives on seeking help for this issue.
My name is Pilar Martinez and I am originally from Colombia where I grew up speaking Spanish. I now work in Toronto as an Occupational Therapist. Newcomers like myself who are self-conscious about their speech may limit the extent to which they socialize with others outside their own language community. This in turn can limit their progress in the work world.
When I decided to address my strong accent, I needed to step outside of my comfort zone and find a solution that would help me have more confidence and success in the country I had chosen to be my home. Once I began working on my accent, people stopped asking me to repeat myself and some even commented on how well I spoke English and how nice my accent was. When it comes to choosing a program for accent modification, I recommend considering the long-term benefits of speaking clearly (Will it help me in job interviews? Will it help me interact with customers or speak up at staff meetings? Will I feel more comfortable talking with my child's teacher?). Once you've decided how important this issue is to your life you can decide which route to take.
My name is Sylvia Whiteside and as a Speech Pathologist working in the area of accent reduction in Toronto, I understand that immigrants to Canada are sensitive about their accents, particularly if they are aware of how hard people are working to understand what they're saying. Newcomers are often unsure about where to go after they've completed ESL classes but need more help with their accents. Below I discuss three different options. Books and CD-ROMs for accent modification are available at libraries, bookstores and on-line and are a cheap option. The down side is that there is no trained listener available to identify what you need to change or give you feedback as to whether you are pronouncing words correctly or not. You also need to consider whether you are disciplined enough to practise regularly.
Some facilities such as ESL Schools, Colleges and Adult Learning Centres offer courses in accent reduction. A teacher is there to provide you with direct feedback and specific goals to focus on. However, anyone can offer a course in accent reduction, no matter what their background so it is important to check the instructor's qualifications. Ask whether they are a qualified ESL teacher and have specific training and experience in this area. Find out if there are pre and post-tests that will give you specific sounds to work on and show your progress. Check on the class size. The bigger the class, the less time a teacher has to give you feedback on your pronunciations, particularly if the class has a variety of different accents. Find out how multiple languages are handled in the class so your time is not wasted on sounds that do not apply to you. The best way to see whether this is the course for you is to ask if you can speak to former students.
A third option is to see a Speech-Language Pathologist who works specifically in the area of accent reduction. This is the most costly option, particularly if you are seen on your own, but if communication is important to your career, it may very well be worth the investment. Speech Pathologists are regulated professionals with a Master's Degree or the equivalent. Some of them take extra training to work specifically in accent reduction. Courses usually take around 13 weeks and more condensed versions can be scheduled to suit your specific needs. Pre and post assessments will identify what you need to work on and show you how much you've progressed. You may be seen in a small group, which is usually a cheaper, but still effective option. Check with your employer to see if they will pay for all or part of the course. Some companies see the benefits of accent modification and will bring a qualified Speech Pathologist in to work with a group of employees. Also, as suggested above, ask to listen to tapes of previous clients and to see research that supports the program being followed. To find someone near you, you can check the listings on the CASLPA (Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists) website at www.caslpa.ca.
In all situations, be wary of claims that the course will help you lose your accent completely. Not only is it extremely difficult, it is also unnecessary. Your accent is part of your history and personality and no one should encourage you to eliminate it. No matter what option you choose, regular, daily practise must be emphasized as it takes work and time to change patterns that have transferred over from your native language. However, when people stop asking you to repeat yourself and fewer miscommunications occur, all the work will have been worthwhile.