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When Your Accent Makes Communication Difficult

May 13, 2015
accent modification program at Duke

A strong accent can make it difficult to be understood, and that can hold you back socially and professionally. Duke’s accent modification program can help. The program’s speech pathologists teach you ways to create sounds and project your voice. The goal is to help you gain confidence by learning to communicate more easily, without eliminating the accent that makes you who you are.

Learn to Speak Standard American English

Whether you come from a region of the U.S., or another part of the world, different dialects can make it difficult for people to clearly express themselves. Duke’s 13-week accent modification program aims to change that. Its clients include graduate students, medical professionals, and business professionals throughout the Triangle.

The program teaches people to speak in a style that is closer to standard American English so that people can communicate more effectively, explained Meredith Nye, CCC-SLP, a speech pathologist with the program.

As speech pathologists, Nye and her colleagues are trained in sound production. “We work on all aspects of speech such as intonation, rhythm, and rate of speech, which impact how well someone is understood. If you talk too quickly or your speech is flat or monotone, it can be hard for people to understand you.” That’s especially true for people from another country, who may not have learned those speaking techniques in their English language classes.

“What?” “Huh?” “Can You Repeat That?”

Many people seeking accent services report that they are frequently asked to repeat themselves in conversation. The resulting frustration can lead to increased anxiety about speaking.

“Some people are concerned they may not move up in their job or get a promotion,” Nye said. “I’ve worked with people in medical school who were concerned because patients and their peers couldn’t understand them. Being understood is the biggest hurdle and biggest complaint.”

Evaluation, Personalized Training

People who seek accent modification services at Duke are first carefully evaluated to determine their needs. “We have the client read to us and talk to us,” Nye said. “We take notes about the way they produce sounds. Then we come up with a list of customized target sounds that we’ll work on over the 13 weeks.”

The speech pathologists meet with their clients for an hour each week. “I have them keep a list of words that are challenging to produce,” she said. “I’ll record the words and encourage them to practice during the week.” The program also covers a different theme each week, such as intonation, non-verbal communication, rate of speech, public speaking, and voice projection. “That’s big for a lot of folks,” Nye said, as many people are taught to talk quietly. “We teach people to project.”

Improve Your Communication Skills

If you’re considering accent modification but aren’t ready to commit to a 13-week program, Nye offers this advice:

  • Slow down and take your time. Speak one word at a time. Your speech will become easier to understand.
  • Practice your target sounds. Think about the sounds that are hard to produce, or that you often mispronounce. Listen to and practice how they should sound. The work will improve your speech and overall communication.
  • Use the correct intonation. The English language has a natural rise and fall to the way words are put together. Learn how to stress certain sounds in words and sentences.
  • Practice public speaking. Many professionals have to speak before other professionals in a small group setting or in front of a larger audience. Learn to use gesture, eye contact, voice projection, and other communication skills to help you gain confidence in these situations.
Learn More About
Accent Modification