(From Summer 2021 Convey magazine)
By John Silman
Maria never viewed her accent as a roadblock, until it became one.
Maria (not her real name) came to the United States from Mexico City where she spoke Spanish as her first language. She learned English as a teenager. In college, she decided to pursue a career as a speech-language pathologist.
“I didn’t think about my accent,” she says. “I was in my own little bubble. I didn’t think my accent would be an issue. It was never an issue in undergraduate school. My professor never said anything about it so I thought it was OK.”
She was doing her clinical hours working with a child when it happened.
“A parent says, ‘I don’t think my kid understands you because you have an accent.’”
It was the first time she realized that how she spoke could affect her chosen profession – one that’s based on having clear, intelligible speech. The comments stung and her confidence took a hit.
“It made me feel really bad,” she says.
Had she chosen the wrong field? Was she going to be able to be good at her job if she had an accent that some people couldn’t understand?
Maria’s story highlights a hot-button topic in the SLP and audiology fields: accent modification. It’s a complicated issue, and there are arguments on both sides. Some professionals are afraid to speak up, as Maria has, for fear of repercussions.
One question is: Why are we putting the burden on non-native speakers to conform to standards of so-called standard English? Isn’t this in itself a form of discrimination?
That’s a belief held by Betty Yu, PhD, CCC-SLP, who teaches at San Francisco State University. She says that accent modification is a form of discrimination against nonnative speakers. It unfairly places a burden on these speakers and perpetuates linguistic discrimination.
“If that’s the only solution that we have to offer as a profession, then we are thinking about the issue wrong,” she says.
Yu says there are large swaths of people potentially excluded from getting linguistic help simply because they don’t speak the English language. The older population is an example, she says, like those who lose their ability to communicate after a stroke and who aren’t going to choose to learn English at their advanced age.
Professionals who practice accent modification, like CSHA member Robert McKinney, MA, CCC-SLP, acknowledge the potential issue of discrimination but also say the intention of the practice is never compulsory and never meant to be discriminatory. The practice is not meant to “change” a person’s accent, he says. Rather, it’s an issue of intelligibility.
McKinney supervises an accent modification clinic at San Diego State University, and he says the main focus is on helping people communicate more effectively.
He also acknowledged, like Yu, that communication is a “shared burden” and more weight in the matter should be given to the listener.
One graduate student at a California university that provides accent modification services says it’s important to make the distinction between what they do and so-called “accent coaches” on the internet who claim they can erase an accent completely, which “capitalizes on the insecurity that comes from linguistic discrimination.”
“Accent modification in itself is a misnomer,” the graduate student says. “If you’re truly adhering to that practice, you’re not focusing on correcting the accent.”
After a certain age, people are not going to be able to pronounce the sounds of a language that’s not native to them, and that’s not what’s important, the student says.
“I’m not going to fix a sound that has no bearing on intelligibility,” they say. “We’re only going to work on sounds that signal a shift in meaning, like ‘leave’ and ‘live,’ and ‘sheet’ and the other word.”
The goal, they say, is effective communication.
“What’s important is that your hospital patients can understand your pronunciations and that you can advocate for yourself in the workplace,” they say. “It’s about increasing intelligibility and communicating effectively.”
Another issue is demographics in the field. Speech-language pathology is overwhelmingly white and female, according to 2020 statistics from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
About 8.5% of speech pathologists identify as racial minorities. About 13.7% of audiologists, 3.7% of SLPs and 17.2% of those with dual certifications are male.
“ASHA has tried to be very open minded and we want as many non-natives as we can,” McKinney says, “but they have to model the sounds of the language they’re working in.”
After Maria was told by a parent that her accent was an issue, she went to her superiors who suggested accent modification. While some institutions will require accent modification sessions as a condition for acceptance into a program, hers did not.
She says she was given time by her department to decide if that’s the route she wanted to take. Eventually, she wanted to do what was best for her clients. And that meant giving accent modification a shot.
“I was sad. I was angry. I felt like even though they never said it was mandatory, I always felt like I had to prove myself and take extra steps that my peers don’t have to take and that native speakers don’t have to experience,” she says.
She was paired with a second-year graduate student, and while they got along, the process wasn’t as private as she would have hoped. In addition, she underwent the training at her own institution, where her peers and professors all worked.
“I didn’t want other people to know. Even to this day, I’ve been very embarrassed about it. Graduate school is already hard and [I felt like] now I have to change the way I speak in clinic,” she says. “I felt a lot of pressure that I have to be really mindful of how I talk or I’m not going to be a good SLP.”
Then the pandemic happened and it was harder to meet in person. Eventually, Maria found a teacher she really liked that made her feel comfortable, and she felt like she made some progress. The one-on-one sessions online were the most comfortable for her.
Regardless of the ease of the sessions, there were times when she questioned the validity of the process itself. There were times when she wanted to give up.
“It got to the point where I hated speaking English,” she says. “Why bother? I’m forgetting where I came from and I’m trying to sound white.”
Maria is now a graduate student at a school in California. She says she wants to eventually work with Spanish speakers and help them with their speech issues. It’s those environments, she says, where she feels “happiest and the safest.”
What would changes look like?
While there’s acknowledgement that there needs to be a change, there isn’t consensus on exactly what that change should look like.
For Yu, part of it would mean shifting the burden from the speaker to the listener.
“As an institution,” she says, “people should practice listening more skillfully.”
This could even include the establishment of listening clinics to help people understand other’s accents, as opposed to the practice of conforming to English.
Inherent and institutional discrimination is an issue that needs to be faced, she says; other areas of culture are dealing with it, and it’s time to examine how it’s baked into the current system. Yu is tired of the discrimination. She’s felt it her entire career.
“I’m not interested in preserving people’s comfort,” she says, adding that there was a complacency in the status quo that felt no urgency to change things.
Bringing more minorities into the profession would diversify the field, she says, and as communication experts there’s a duty to have a more sophisticated understanding of all types of communication.
Yu explained that students are in a vulnerable position in the hierarchy of the institution. They occupy the lowest rungs. They’re told that all accents are beautiful and in the same breath there’s this idea to talk more “white,” Yu says.
“If all accents are truly beautiful, then let people speak the way they speak,” she says. Another faculty member who works in an accent modification clinic in California with grad students says that while some universities require accent modification as a condition of acceptance into the program, it isn’t the case for all of them.
There are instances, they say, where a student with a heavy accent will be brought in for potential accent modification because a supervisor says that they were not going to be able to pass evaluations. They say other students, however, do it of their own volition, because they want to be better at giving academic presentations or present research at conferences.
Part of the problem is the accreditation system, the faculty member says. It’s a wide net meant to capture a certain proficiency, but it doesn’t have much flexibility when it comes to accents.
Perhaps it’s time to take a different approach, the faculty member says.
The United States has long been referred to as a melting pot, where different cultures meld and blend together. But what if, the faculty member says, America was more like a stir fry, where you could identify the different elements that make up the whole?
“We need to embrace the idea of our differences,” they say.
The graduate student that works in accent modification says it’s easy to label the practice as discriminatory, but they hope that people see that’s not the intention of it.
“Accent modification is not the enemy in the situation,” the graduate student says.
While the SLP field is overwhelmingly white, the graduate student argues that most providers of accent modification are themselves non-native speakers who want to give back to the field. Many of them have received the services themselves and know what it’s like to acquire another phonological system.
They agree that the issue could very well lie with the listener.
“We need to teach others to be better listeners. Communication is a two-way street, and intelligibility instruction can only go so far if our communicative partner is not receptive to our message, for reasons of linguistic discrimination or otherwise. In addition to providing accent modification to those who seek it, I hope that we, as a field, can incorporate “listening clinics” into our graduate programs – and maybe even classrooms – to promote more attuned, open-minded listeners.”
Jon Silman is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, NY Daily News, Vice, Oxygen Network and others.