Karen Van Hook, Ph.D.

When is a Foreign Accent an Asset?

Some speakers of English as a foreign language want to retain aspects of their own accents, and there are good reasons for them to do so. The key is knowing when and how a foreign accent becomes an advantage.

A foreign accent isn’t always a handicap. In some cases, it can even be an advantage.
A light foreign accent can actually help you to speak with greater authority. When a speaker sounds completely competent in English but still foreign, they sound worldly, sophisticated and knowledgeable. They sound as if they have access to a broader range of experience than an ordinary native speaker does. The same is true in many languages – not just English. Imagine someone speaking your language clearly and fluently, but with a detectable foreign accent. Do they sound intelligent? Interesting? Impressive? That’s how a soft foreign accent sounds to many native speakers of English.
Yet there’s no denying that sometimes, a foreign accent can be a disadvantage. What is the difference between an accent that causes difficulty and an accent that’s an advantage? Some of it depends on specific circumstances – such as the field you’re working in or which native speakers you’re dealing with. But a lot of it is actually the character of the accent itself. There are a few characteristics that make an accent serve as an asset rather than a liability.
All the important distinctions between sounds are made clearly. With very few exceptions, a foreign accent that makes a good impression never involves mixing up sounds or blurring the distinctions between sounds. All the consonants are pronounced clearly. All the vowels of English are pronounced distinctly—listeners never have to guess whether the speaker meant “this” or “these,” “nut” or “not.” There are audible differences from the way natives would pronounce the sounds, but the differences are small enough that they make the accent sound interesting, not confusing.
Rhythm and tone are close to those used by native speakers. Again, there are some differences, but people don’t often misunderstand the speaker’s meaning because of a mistaken tone cue. One element is especially important: the key words in a phrase or sentence stand out. Native speakers highlight the important words in a message by slowing down, emphasizing the individual sounds in those words, and changing the pitch. Most languages signal distinctions between key words and less important words, but they don’t use all of these signals. A foreign speaker who doesn’t use all the signals native speakers use may be hard to understand, or may sound uncertain or insecure. In contrast, a foreign speaker who makes the important words stand out in the same way native speakers do sounds confident and competent.
The voice qualities and resonance are partially similar to those used by native speakers. An accent that sounds good to native speakers doesn’t have to have exactly the same voice qualities as a native accent. In fact, the voice qualities that foreign speakers bring to English are often a large part of why their accents sound interesting and appealing to native speakers. But a foreign accent makes an especially good impression if the speaker’s voice has some elements in common with the typical American voice. One such element is what is called “voice placement” – loosely speaking, where the voice seems to “come from”. Some accents sound as if they come from deep in the throat; others as if they come from high up in the back of the nose. The neutral American accent comes primarily from the front of the throat and the roof of the mouth – roughly in the middle of the mouth. When speakers have strong voice resonance in these areas, they sound as if they truly have command of our language—as if they really “get” American English. Other elements of voice resonance that they may retain from their native language then add interest and depth to the voice.
In summary, an accent that’s an advantage is one that shows command of the aspects of American English that native speakers respond to most: the important distinctions between sounds, the use of rhythm and tone to make key words and ideas stand out, and the basic voice resonance that signals to listeners that the speaker feels “at home” with American English. There can still be many audible differences between the foreign accent and the native accent in all of these areas, but those differences will tend to make the foreign speaker sound interesting and impressive.