Helping Clients Choose a Voice Everyone has an accent—the phonological and prosodic variations that make each person’s speech unique. These variations often are a source of pride and national identity. But when a speaker and listener do not share a similar accent, there is potential for misunderstanding and, in some cases, a barrier to effective ... Features
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Features  |   March 01, 2012
Helping Clients Choose a Voice
Author Notes
  • Amee P. Shah, PhD, CCC-SLP, is associate professor and director of the Research Laboratory in Speech Acoustics and Perception at Cleveland State University. Her research interests include psychosocial factors affecting perception of foreign-accented speech and translational research to develop an evidence-based focus for accent modification. She is a member of Special Interest Groups 14, Communication Disorders and Sciences in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations, and 17, Global Issues in Communication Sciences and Related Disorders. Contact her at a.shah101@csuohio.edu.
    Amee P. Shah, PhD, CCC-SLP, is associate professor and director of the Research Laboratory in Speech Acoustics and Perception at Cleveland State University. Her research interests include psychosocial factors affecting perception of foreign-accented speech and translational research to develop an evidence-based focus for accent modification. She is a member of Special Interest Groups 14, Communication Disorders and Sciences in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations, and 17, Global Issues in Communication Sciences and Related Disorders. Contact her at a.shah101@csuohio.edu.×
Article Information
Speech, Voice & Prosodic Disorders / Cultural & Linguistic Diversity / Speech, Voice & Prosody / Features
Features   |   March 01, 2012
Helping Clients Choose a Voice
The ASHA Leader, March 2012, Vol. 17, 32-34. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR4.17032012.32
The ASHA Leader, March 2012, Vol. 17, 32-34. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR4.17032012.32
Everyone has an accent—the phonological and prosodic variations that make each person’s speech unique. These variations often are a source of pride and national identity. But when a speaker and listener do not share a similar accent, there is potential for misunderstanding and, in some cases, a barrier to effective communication.
Yet people with nonstandard accents have diverse opinions and values, and make different choices about modifying their accents. Some seek out the services of a speech-language pathologist on their own, and some are referred for accent modification. Others—even those with strong accents—may elect never to receive accent modification because they regard their accent as a mark of cultural identity. Regardless of the context in which we encounter people with accents different from our own, it is important to understand the unique needs of the person behind the accent.
The decision whether to provide accent modification services is often subjective, and sometimes misguided. People describe being “accused” of having an accent, which implies that for some listeners, detection of the accent is considered improper. But speaking with an accent that’s different from the listener’s is not reason enough for accent modification. Accent modification services are elective, but SLPs can help determine who can benefit from accent modification and who is misidentified as having a communication problem. There is no question that it should always be the client’s decision whether to modify an accent, but individuals often wonder how to judge their own accent. Some people may feel they cannot make an objective decision.
It is each individual’s decision whether his or her accent may hinder the chances of success in a career or everyday life. But it is useful for clinicians to have a framework with which to determine whether an individual would be able to communicate more effectively with accent modification services.
The Importance of Needs Assessment
It is crucial to identify each person’s accent-related costs—reduced intelligibility, social isolation, and other issues. The referrer’s (e.g., employer, supervisor) perceptual biases and stereotypes about the perceived limitations of a speaker should not be used as a basis to seek and serve clients.
Clients seek or are referred for accent modification services for a variety of reasons that typically fall into one of three categories.
Personal Preference. Some people seek out accent modification voluntarily. It is the clinician’s option to serve these clients, whose accents do not contribute to communication difficulty per se, but who desire services for personal reasons. For example, an actor may want to change his or her accent or adopt a new one for an acting role. Media personalities and communications professionals sometimes want to adopt a specific style of speech.
Clients who are referred for treatment—or seek it out on their own—for real or perceived communication difficulties can be classified into two categories: mild accents and communication difficulty.
Mild Accents. Accent modification may be inadvisable when the accent is determined by objective measurement to be mild and consisting of slight regional variations, and if measures indicate nearly 100% baseline intelligibility. Regional variations include geographical dialectal differences (Southern, New York, or Midwestern accents) or ethnic variations—for example, African American Vernacular English.
These speakers may be referred to an SLP by an employer or supervisor. Instead of accent modification, some of these speakers may benefit from education about the value of their accent, awareness of possible discrimination, and cultivation of a sense of pride and empowerment. Cultural competence training for employers or colleagues may be recommended if a client with a mild accent is referred and does not wish to receive accent modification services.
Communication Difficulty. This category of individuals may be identified on the basis of low intelligibility scores as ascertained by objective measures and subjective reports by the client. The degree of social difficulty posed by the accent is also a factor. When a client reports across-the-board communication difficulty that affects his or her job performance and social acculturation, it is likely the client could benefit from accent modification services.
But how do SLPs help clients objectively determine their reasons for seeking service? The following framework, developed over 15 years of research, provides a decision-making rubric that hinges on objective measures of intelligibility—rather than subjective perceptions—as a more reliable predictor of communication difficulty.
A Working Model
We use a culturally sensitive framework to identify who may benefit from accent modification. This framework is the basis of the score-based comprehensive assessment battery (Comprehensive Assessment of Accentedness & Intelligibility [CAAI], Shah, 2007) used in our clinical practice, research, and training of clinicians nationwide. This battery builds on previous research on second-language learning to establish areas to assess and methods to assess them. The goal is to determine the degree of communication difficulty stemming from individuals’ regional or foreign accent.
Because there are no standardized testing methods for accented speech in our field to date, the model and test battery were developed to provide structure, rigor, and consistency in the elective services of accent modification. The intent is to make every aspect of accent modification—from client selection to assessment to service delivery—an informed decision, guided by objective measures.
The baseline intelligibility and accent-rating sections of the battery are used as a screening to determine whether an individual could benefit from accent modification. If a speaker has a mild accent that does not affect intelligibility, we provide speaker education, counseling, and suggestions for improving communication. Speakers whose screenings suggest that accent modification could be beneficial receive further diagnostic assessment to identify objectively the degree of difficulty in various areas of communication and to develop systematic services that focus on intelligibility.
At periodic junctures, the clinician seeks other measures of real-life progress and success indicators, such as patient satisfaction surveys if the client is a physician, student evaluations of professors, or increased sales figures or customer satisfaction surveys for a client who works in sales. We also have provided concurrent staff training in accent listening at a client’s workplace to engender a greater degree of cultural competence among colleagues.
Varying Views
When others around them lack an objective understanding of the phenomenon of accents, people with strongly accented speech may experience discrimination—and other personal and professional consequences. As SLPs, we should help those who wish to receive accent modification services. For those who are referred, but do not need accent modification, we should promote the viewpoint that accent diversity is something to be celebrated.
Accent modification is a recent area of clinical practice with limited literature and data available for clinical application. There are few published studies about accent modification techniques. New research should seek to establish the efficacy of popular or emerging approaches.
Clinicians can help clients make better-informed decisions by broadening their understanding of the needs of people with accents. More research is needed to cultivate a more complete understanding of psychological, economic, and other effects of accented speech, but more dialogue can also increase clinicians’ cultural sensitivity and competence. In this way, SLPs can advocate for clients and empower them to choose the best services for their needs.
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March 2012
Volume 17, Issue 3