An Accent-Reduction Case Study

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From time to time, I offer you some of my more interesting case studies; I’m sure they will be interesting and relevant to those faced with similar issues of accent reduction.

This particular client, whom I’ll call Mohammad to protect his privacy, is a prominent professional in the United States, having emigrated from his native country in the Middle East some thirty years ago. He still speaks English with a strong Arabic accent, still retaining, for example, the strong trilled R.

I love to hear him talk. His speech is vigorous, expressive, and except for the occasional polysyllabic word where he might put emphasis on the wrong syllable, he’s completely intelligible, at least to me.

He is to be a defendant in a lawsuit of grave importance and will face a jury in the case. His attorney first contacted me, worried that perhaps he might not be completely intelligible to the jury, and even if he was, that his accent might prejudice them against him.

Since Mohammad is completely fluent in English and has a larger vocabulary than many native-born Americans, there’s no question of his linguistic competence, but given his Middle Eastern origin and the political tensions between the U.S. and some Arabic states, the dangers his lawyer foresees are probably all too real. After 30 years of residence, citizenship, and prominent service in the US, it’s unfair that he should have to worry that the jury’s verdict won’t depend entirely on the merits of the case. But if he can be coached into a more mainstream American English speech style, his chances of winning the case will be improved — no doubt about it.

Working with him via phone-coaching, I quickly found that after a lifetime of trilling his R sounds and other phonetic features of his Arabic accent, he wasn’t now going to quickly modify those habits. Perhaps another client in his situation might, but not Mohammad. He could imitate the sounds I modeled for him in single word lists: [Paul demonstrates] rare, horror, bringing, etc., but he simply may never modify his pronunciation in free conversation. And perhaps he doesn’t need to.

His mispronunciation, if that’s the right word, of such English sounds, rarely, if ever, makes him less intelligible. The precision of his speech, if anything, makes him clearer than the casual slurring of speech that we hear from many speakers of American English today. So it boils down to the question of perceived “otherness,” and “foreignness,” the simple ancient mistrust of someone who “doesn’t talk like we do.” Sad but true.

However, although he will perhaps never fully incorporate English vowels and consonants into his daily speech, Mohammad was very good at modifying the extreme peaks and valleys of his intonation pattern. When we first started working together there was a wonderful, exuberant, expressive variety in the melody of his speech; he changed pitch, volume, and tempo with gusto. But, compared with the TV image of the solid, relaxed, discreet, and sometimes somber American executive whom we’re all supposed to trust, Mohammad might be perceived by the jury as unpredictable, quixotic, excitable, and unreliable simply because of his changeable speech dynamics. When he confines his intonation to a few semi-tones, and avoids the sudden changes in tempo and volume that are his style, he sounds more like the popular image of the sober, restrained authority figure that American culture has constructed as the model of professionalism. Of course, Mohammad’s expressive and enthusiastic style of speech has absolutely no bearing on his professional judgment and reliability; it’s entirely a question of perception and social norms. It’s a shame, but I must suggest to him that he should restrain his own personality and cultural background; it may be absolutely essential if he is to prevail in the impending lawsuit.

I’ll revisit this case and let you know how it unfolds.

Meanwhile, I hope these real-life case studies show what a complicated set of social, linguistic, and political issues intersect in the apparently straightforward business of learning to speak another language. I look forward to your comments on these issues. And I wish you a happy outcome in your own adventures in English.