Accent, what accent? Why your accent doesn’t matter for the IELTS!

Something I am asked about often is the matter of accent, several students tell me they have a strong accent, whether Chinese, Slavic or whatever. Now, in this matter I am neutral, I have become used to different accents over the years and I do not consider such things to be important. As long as your pronunciation is good and the essential meaning of your speech is clear, then sounding French, Chinese or whatever else doesn’t matter. I mention this in relation to the IELTS test as one of my students asked me whether he needed a British accent to score well on the test, I told him no, of course not. If we consider the criteria for the Speaking test, one of the things tested is your pronunciation, to paraphrase the IELTS criteria, do you demonstrate a wide range of pronunciation features with precision and subtlety and are you effortless to understand? If so, then your “accent” doesn’t matter as accent and pronunciation are different things.

So my post today is whether having an accent is important. For some people the answer is no, they are happy with having a distinct national accent when they speak English. If we consider the fact that the numbers of non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers, and that most speech acts in English take place between non-natives, all that should matter is that the speech is communicatively effective. That is to say, that the message is conveyed and no misunderstanding takes place.

However, not everyone feels this way. For many people having a British or American accent or just a more “neutral” accent is very important, for reasons of prestige in business dealings and for a perceived “status”. For others, having a neutral accent is a matter of being able to find a job or not. For example, one of the biggest demands for accent reduction lessons now comes from India. This is because of the outsourcing of many call-centre jobs to India, and the problems faced by customers of these call centres being able to understand the Indian staff, which has led to the demand for accent reduction.

I have to say that it is very difficult to completely change your accent to that of another nationality. So, it is very hard for an Indian, for example, to sound like an Englishman with a “BBC” pronunciation, or to sound like an American either. An exception to this is actors, although they only temporarily adopt another accent and the effect is rarely permanent. So, what we mean by accent reduction is accent neutralisation, where your accent is changed in a small way to sound more like a native English or American pronunciation.

One way you can do this is to choose a “target” accent, the national accent you like the best, American or British English. Then you need to analyse your own voice by making a recording and comparing it with your “target” accent, and then identify the differences and try to correct them. Some useful sources of information in this regard can be found by listening to the BBC world service. I recommend this website as it has many useful accent and pronunciation tips as well as free downloadable materials of both audio and text files to help you.Another very useful tool for your pronunciation is the downloadable audio phonetic chart from the British Council, this is an app which you can install on your iPhone or PC and it plays the sounds of the 44 phonemes in the English language which you can then imitate.If you need more examples of different accents in English then you can try IDEA (International Dialects of English Archive) and GMU (George Mason University).They both have a searchable index of different regional and national accents along with a transcript in most cases for you to listen to and imitate. These websites will give you lots of examples of the different accents that people speak, so you can find one you like and try and imitate the accent you hear.

If you don’t want to do it yourself, or you doubt your ability, then you need to find someone with experience in this area. The reason for this is obvious; you need someone who is familiar with the phonetic system of the English language and who has an extensive knowledge of how the “natural” mechanics of speech (rhythm, tone, and stress) work, and who knows how to teach them. So, not just any “native” speaker will do, you need an expert language teacher who has the knowledge and experience to assist you.

The other reason is that it is very difficult to analyse your own speech, not impossible by any means, but best done by someone who knows their business. I hope this helps, or gives you an idea about what to do to change your accent, but don’t forget, it is not necessary for the IELTS!