What? I have an accent?

So what exactly is this thing we call an "accent"?

As I struggle to learn Dutch here in the Netherlands, and as I listen to my colleagues and friends speak English as a second or third language, I'm daily confronted with "accents" and their implications. Our speech accents are part of our identity as individuals, families, and cultures, and whether or not we are aware of it, our unique ways of pronouncing words impact our daily lives tremendously.

In fact, as purely native, first-language speakers of any language, every single one of us speaks with an accent. There is no such thing as "neutral" or "perfect" pronunciation, because speech is relative! We could argue for years whether people in Boston or New York speak the purest form of English...or wait, what about the British with whom it all began?

Personally, I find accents fascinating. Not only does a person's accented speech implicitly share a bit of a speaker's history and background, it also evokes many emotions and responses in a listener. A few that come to mind are positive feelings of curiosity, humor, connection, acceptance, and attraction.

With all these positive vibes, why should anyone work at all to get rid of an accent they have (particularly in a second/third language?) The truth is that accents are just as easily associated with negative feelings, such as misunderstanding, prejudice, superiority, and repulsion. Here's where accents start to be considered a problem. But I would argue that the negative feelings listed here are issues of the listener, rather than the speaker. This being said, why do I, as a speech therapist, promote "accent reduction" services? Should I change that to "listener bias reduction" services? I'm curious if any self-referrals would come my way! :)

To the point though, is there validity in promoting "accent reduction" services at all? I am convinced there is absolutely validity and also strong arguments in support of these services, not the least of which is the essential need to communicate without barriers. It is impossible and certainly unjustified to eliminate an accent (remember we all have one of some sort?). But if a particular accent is roadblocking an individual's effective communication with a group of listeners, who can argue against finding ways to adjust that accent in the interest of the unimpeded exchange of information and ideas? Now there's a lofty goal which just might be the professional ambition of every speech-language pathologist: unhindered, effective communication!