How do I fix my "accent?
July 17, 2008 10:09 PM   Subscribe

How do I fix my "accent"?

When I was born, I had so many ear infections from allergic reactions that I was deaf until I was 3 or so, when it miraculously cleared up. As a consequence though, I wasn't able to speak until then and I still have a speech problem to this day.

My voice vaguely sounds like the voice of a deaf person who can speak. I've been told that I sound like Elmer Fudd and Homestar Runner. In either case, my voice is that of two of pop culture's favorite idiots.

Anyways, my problem is that it has started to become really old for me when people tell me "I like your accent." But see, it's not an accent. I can't help that even after 10 years of speech therapy as a child I still cannot say pronounce "r" words correctly. It's not an accent, it's a speech problem. The worst part of it is that as a result, people start assuming all things about me. For example, a co-worker of mine assumed I was from England without asking me because she said I "sounded" like I was from England (even though I've never been to the country). Likewise, it's a bitch when I go through US Customs and after I tell the customs officer where I was born, they ask "No, where were you REALLY born? You don't sound like you're from the US."

Frankly, I don't see why I have an accent is relevant. I'd rather have people judge me on my character than the way I sound.

So my question is - how do I/should I deal with this? This may seem a bit trivial thing to get worked up about but I have a very hard time fitting in to begin with, and my voice has always exacerbated things. That's one of the reasons I don't like talking to begin with, because I hate the sound of my voice and having people approach me about my "accent." Is there anything I can do so my voice sounds better?

Just to clarify, to the best of my knowledge, the extent I have a genuine accent is the fact I pronounce "Mary," "merry," and "marry" the same and apparently people from upstate NY pronounce "roof" differently.
posted by champthom to Human Relations (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Except for the deaf issue, I feel you. When I was young, in an attempt to hide the fact I couldn't say my 'R', I changed the way I would pronounce things. Once it started, it didn't spread through all my words. This caused me to sound English/Australian/Kentuckian (!?! I've been there, and... no), depending on who asks, and is hugely embarrassing. I still can't speak well, and get tripped up on a lot of words, which makes me nervous, which makes me screw up more... But apparently it got better when I got braces.

I am looking forward to answers, and I just wanted to give you a bit of moral support.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 10:22 PM on July 17, 2008

If 10 years of professional speech therapy didn't improve your speech, I don't know what someone can suggest on MetaFilter that would help. An inability to pronounce r's properly might be something you have to accept about yourself, just as Barbara Walters and everyone from Boston has done.

a co-worker of mine assumed I was from England without asking me because she said I "sounded" like I was from England

You can take solace in knowing that many ignorant people in the US think those with a British accent are more intelligent.

the extent I have a genuine accent is the fact I pronounce "Mary," "merry," and "marry" the same

I thought those were homophones. I think almost everyone in the US pronounces them in the same way.
posted by HotPatatta at 10:30 PM on July 17, 2008

Contact your local deaf resources. They should, I think, be able to point you towards speech therapists/elocution experts who can help you work it out of your speech patterns.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:32 PM on July 17, 2008

If you want to change the way you speak, there are voice coaches who work with people to rid them of accents (to remove "class" markers for a career in business, or for acting or broadcasting careers)... but as you point out, it's not really an "accent" so much as a speech impediment, and those types of instructors may not have the expertise to help you. Regardless, if anyone comments about your accent, you might just respond, "well, I was deaf through my infancy and toddlerhood, and then - at the age of three - it cleared up!" This might be the best way to deal with it, because it is both fascinating and true.
posted by moxiedoll at 10:35 PM on July 17, 2008

Shoulda previewed.

If 10 years of professional speech therapy didn't improve your speech

It's possible (I have no idea) that there may be more success with speech therapy as an adult, as one is better suited to really thinking through the issue and aiming at the solution than a child is.

the extent I have a genuine accent is the fact I pronounce "Mary," "merry," and "marry" the same

I thought those were homophones

They're not. In really, really gross terms, they're may-ree, meh-ree, and ma-ree (ma like cat).

Or, better, think of the pronunciation differences between bate, bet, bat.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:36 PM on July 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

They're not. In really, really gross terms, they're may-ree, meh-ree, and ma-ree (ma like cat).

In many parts of the US, they are.
posted by enn at 10:56 PM on July 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

So, you're saying you can't pronounce R after a vowel, or you can't pronounce R anywhere in a word? Because a quasi English accent sounds like the former. However, if you can pronounce R anywhere, you should be able to building on it and trick yourself into tacking it onto a vowel. Gee, it sounds so easy, so I must be missing something. (This trick works with ESL students, but not if they can't make the sound at all, like the typical Japanese person R. No R anywhere.)
posted by Listener at 11:04 PM on July 17, 2008

Sorry, that's no L anywhere. It's been a long time. :) Arigato.
posted by Listener at 11:05 PM on July 17, 2008

They're not. In really, really gross terms, they're may-ree, meh-ree, and ma-ree (ma like cat).

Maybe in your dialect. In mine, those words are pronounced identically most of the time. More relevant to the OP's question, though: you could probably get a referral from a doctor and work with a speech language pathologist on this sort of thing, or maybe with an accent coach as mentioned above. The fact that you now have normal (I assume) hearing would make "improvement" quite possible. However, most people find it really hard to break those habits as adults. You'll probably never speak entirely without the accent, but maybe you can eliminate a few of the more obvious traits of deaf-accented speech. (IAND,BIAD - I am not natively Deaf, but I am deaf.)

And yes, it is an accent. Or at least, if it's not actually impeding your ability to be understood through speech, why call it a speech impediment?
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:07 PM on July 17, 2008

Step 1: Educate yourself about what human language is.

When we speak (English), air passes from the lungs, up through the vocal tract, and out of the mouth (the fancy term for this is pulmonic egressive). All human speech sounds are made by manipulating this air using the various articulators along the vocal tract, such as the lips, teeth, tongue, the top of your mouth, and the vocal folds--the linked chart simply maps all of the sounds by which of these articulators are used, and how you use them. While we may write English using an alphabet of "21 consonants" and "5 vowels," the catalogue of English phones is actually much, much greater than 26: some phoneticians would tell you that the written letter "r" alone, in fact, may serve to instruct the speaker to use one of up to 21 different sounds. While that's getting quite particular, even plain-old linguists agree that General American English consists of at least 44 different sounds. Meanwhile, when people talk about "r sounds," what they most often are referring to in American Engilsh is an alveolar approximant, in which the tip of the tongue comes close to but does not touch the ridge on the roof of your mouth right behind your teeth, and your vocal cords vibrate as air passes through your throat and across your tongue. Consider your friend r's variants, such as the r-colored vowel.'

You need to become really familiar with precisely what it is that you're doing with your body when you talk. Don't just read those links--actually convince yourself of what's contained in them: that, for example, the only difference between a 't' sound and a 'd' sound at the beginning of a word is that in one, you vibrate your vocal cords (this is called a voiced sound), while in the other, you do not. Try a similar exercise for 'p' and 'b', and 'k' and 'g.' Get some phonetic toys: a tongue depressor, paint for your mouth, matches, praat, and mess around. In my experience, many people who encounter descriptive linguistics for the first time are suspicious of the most basic facts about the way that we speak, like the alternation I just described. Be a skeptic, by all means--just know that we're not making this stuff up. If you want to change the way you speak--a difficult thing to do--you need to know precisely what it is that you're doing when you talk.

Your linguistic primer would not be complete, however, without brushing up on your sociolinguistics. You don't have to agree with all of the more radical and controversial concepts of sociolinguistics to observe that everybody's speech is "accented"--it should be quite plain that all that you could even mean when you say that one person's speech is more accented than another's is that their speech is perceived to vary more from some vaunted societal norm--which, by the way, hopefully seems as bizarre a way to sort people out to you as it does to me.

Step 2: Change the way you say /r/.

Speech pathologists give me the willies for a couple of reasons, the biggest of them being that we should stop pathologizing so many people's normal speech. Not to mention, of course, that nobody knows what mechanisms of mind and/or states of brain underlie human language use, including production of speech sounds, so anyone who tells you that they can with certainty permanently change the way you talk is a bit of a snake oil salesperson. That said, there are experts in the problem that you describe, and I don't doubt for a moment that they are competent and likely to be able to assist you with it. Consider for example this citation, which I pulled from my one of my wikipedia links in the 20 minutes it took me to write this:

Curtis, J.F.& Hardy, J.C. (1959) A phonetic study of misarticulation of /r/. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 2 (3), 244-257.

That's a fourteen page article on your problem written forty years ago.

I don't actually know any speech pathologists with expertise in this area, but it's likely someone on Ask MeFi does, and if not, I bet I could find one. Ping me if you want more help.
posted by holympus at 11:25 PM on July 17, 2008 [7 favorites]

If people are saying "I like your accent" then it is probably not as unattractive as you think. You might want to check this with a couple of good friends and ask them what images or sterotypes go with your voice.

It sounds like what you really need from us is a good answer that ends conversations without sharing more information than you want.

If they say "I like your accent" the best response is "Thank you" and then, in the same breadth, change the subject - ask them a question so they have to think about the answer and forget their interest in your speech.

If they ask where you were born or where you are from, that is trickier.
A few thoughts but I bet other MeFites could do better: (Randomly picking Ohio as your hometown)
- "My accent is the side effect of some ear problems when I was small. It is interesting how many people mistake it for a British accent" (since they don't really care where you were born - just answer the real question)
- "Ohio" "You don't sound like you are from Ohio" "Really. Where are you from?"
- "Ohio" "You don't sound like you are from Ohio" "I know! I think I sound like I'm from Tagalog (or some other unlikely place) but I've never been there so I don't know how I picked up the accent."
- "I was born and raised in Ohio but my best friend was from Mars and so I picked up his accent."
- "Ohio, but I was raised by wolves so I picked up their accent"
posted by metahawk at 12:21 AM on July 18, 2008

Well, I wasn't going to say quite as much about it as holympus did, but ... what holympus said.

I didn't find out I had a very minor speech impediment (bunched R) until I took a phonetics class. Then, of course, my sister said that my R had always sounded really strange to her, and I wondered who else had noticed. But the funny thing is that it has decreased somewhat. I have not made conscious efforts to change my usage—I've got a zillion things that compel more of my attention than whether someone thinks my R is weird—but I have consciously practiced the articulatory gesture that I'm naturally weak on (mostly as a side-effect of trying to learn Mandarin—it's all over that language). To do that, of course, I had to learn what that gesture was, to the point where I could explain it and do it at will.

In the same phonetics class, I learned about accents that pronounce wh differently from just plain w. My native accent doesn't. But it sounded fun to try, and I had an information source since it's right there in the spelling. Unlike the R thing, this has sometimes been a conscious project. It's also much further along than the R thing: I almost always do it in careful speech, though I strongly suspect it still vanishes when I'm absorbed and speaking fast. Point is, again, at least 70% of the work was getting a very clear understanding of how I wanted to say it. The rest came about through a moment's attention here and a moment's attention there, day after day for a couple years.

Note this well, too: "Having an accent" is relative to the person who's listening. Everybody's got an accent; what people are really noticing is that your accent is a little different from theirs. In the Western U.S., your and my Mary/merry/marry merger is totally unremarkable and dirtynumbangelboy's distinction is weird; in parts of the East, he's normal and we're weird. My purported impediment is only really audible to people who grew up speaking a variety of English that has syllable-final R, because only they have to make the very minor acoustic distinction that I don't produce. Looking at it another way, their accent gets them expecting this sound that I don't give them.

So you can't really get rid of an accent, but you can change it or get another one. Learn enough articulatory phonology to cover all the common sounds of English: What does your mouth do when you say such-and-such? Probably you should also learn some acoustic phonology, as it's often easier to describe vowels and Rs by their formants (active frequency bands) than by their articulation. So if you can get your own sound and your target sound, and make spectrograms of both of them in Praat, you can see just how close you are, and pick your best attempts to study and repeat. Now you're ready to go accent shopping. Find yourself an accent you like, probably one that is well-documented and well-studied (but feel free to shop around), and get some listening material and as much explanatory material as you can. For major accents, there are materials for actor training that might help. Then go to it: Read the explanations, practice what they say, listen to the materials, try to hear the distinction, try to imitate the materials, occasionally record your practice and put an important sound through Praat to see how your formants are doing ... there's a learning curve, but the material is kind of neat.

For the regional-accent derailers (derailleurs?), Wikipedia has a surprising amount of information on English dialect variation, in North America and elsewhere. Start from "English phonology" and you'll soon be chin-deep in it.
posted by eritain at 1:35 AM on July 18, 2008

assuming more speech therapy doesn't make much sense at this point, i would just play it straight, but friendly.

they: "where are you from?"
you: "[state]"
they: "you don't have [state's] accent."
you: "i was deaf for the first few years of my life."
they: "..."
you: "don't feel bad. i can sound very british sometimes. it's fun at parties!"
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:18 AM on July 18, 2008

Get a device that will record your voice and play it back for yourself and just practice, practice, practice until you sound the way you want to.

Re marry, Mary, merry; very vary: I'm midwestern and my mind was blown when a college professor demonstrated for our class how to say those things correctly. I still can't *do* it, of course...
posted by gjc at 5:45 AM on July 18, 2008

As a consequence though, I wasn't able to speak until then and I still have a speech problem to this day.

As a consequence of growing up speaking English, I have a speech problem when I speak Swedish. I'm as fluent as your grandmother, I knows the grammar all proper like, but I'll just never get those "å ö ä sj" sounds and that lovely intonation to come out right. My accent is awful.

I used to be a bit embarassed by it, but now I could not care less. I am fully understood by most people - which is the main point with language - and when some ask where I am from, I give them the name of my street (which I cannot either properly pronouce) and SMILE.

In addition to the good advice you received above, just do the best you can with the tools you have and practice, practice, practice.
posted by three blind mice at 5:53 AM on July 18, 2008

Re marry, Mary, merry; very vary: I'm midwestern and my mind was blown when a college professor demonstrated for our class how to say those things correctly.

What you mean to say is that your college professor showed you a different way of pronouncing them, not "how to say those things correctly." Pronouncing all three exactly the same is 100% legitimate, if that's how they are in your dialect or idiolect.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:03 AM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

That's one of the reasons I don't like talking to begin with, because I hate the sound of my voice

Perhaps some public speaking classes, like Toastmasters, would help you feel more confident about speaking, regardless of how you sound.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:54 AM on July 18, 2008

I had similar issues (not total hearing loss, but enough to require about 8 years of speech therapy) and R and W remained the hardest ones. (You can tell when I am very tired/worn out because I'll start swapping them.)

To complicate things, accent-wise, my parents were English and raised in the UK (accent to match) respectively, and I grew up in Boston. Because of the speech therapy and my family practicing with me, I picked up far more British accent than my siblings did.

Things that helped:

1) Amusement makes it easier.
It did get to the point that when people ask me where I'm from, I'd smile and say "Location, or the accent?" and they'd usually laugh and say "I was wondering about the accent..." and we'd go on from there. Because 95% of the time, they were curious about the accent.

2) Having a simple quick explanation handy:
Mine was "My parents are British" and, when it got slightly more complicated or someone asked more details "I had some hearing loss when I was younger, but it's better now. [diverting conversation to some other track]."

3) Work with a *singing* teacher or with someone else who can give very precise feedback without treating it as a pathology.

I was a music major in college, and had *always* had problems with r and w when singing (especially in Italian and German) which is fairly significant issue. What one of my voice teachers finally figured out was that I still don't actually hear the letter r correctly when I say it (something none of the speech therapists had gotten)

I know where it's supposed to be. I know where it is in words I hear. But I couldn't hear myself doing it, so of course it went weirdly. What she did with me was drill me for 10 minutes at a time for several months, repeating back to me what she was hearing (so I could refine it better) and making specific placement suggestions. And then telling me if I'd gotten it 'right' in terms of our end goal (being able to sing in various languages without the letters detracting from the music.)

I think the reason it worked better for me, in part, was because I was focused on other things (singing), not sitting there repeating phrases: it gave me just enough to concentrate on that I wasn't overthinking and overprocessing the r.

4) Moving
I moved from Boston to Minnesota about 9 years ago - and my accent has flattened a *lot* since then. People no longer ask about it, though my speed-of-speech is classic Bostonian (fast!) Something about being around speech patterns that didn't reinforce the R sound in the same way seemed to help. Plus, since most people know I'm a transplant, they chalk up any weirdnesses to the Boston part, not anything else.

I wouldn't move just for that - but it's an interesting side effect.

5) Ignoring the people who say I'm doing it wrong.
There are *hundreds* of accents and ways to speak English out there. If you are able to make yourself understood and to do the stuff you really want to do, that should be fine for everyone else (unless you're taking something like an acting class where accents do have a part in protraying roles.) I'd expect it to maybe be used as a point of discussion in a linguistics class, too.

But anywhere else? It is rude for people make fun of you or tell you you're speaking wrong. There is no reason you have to put up with that kind of rudeness. It's so very elementary school. I've found that a well applied "I *beg* your pardon?" and similar polite but cold "I can't believe you just said that" phrasings help a lot. I've needed to deploy them only a handful of times, but having stuff prepped so I'm ready if I need to be helps a lot.
posted by modernhypatia at 7:03 AM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Investigate these Google results.
posted by WCityMike at 7:53 AM on July 18, 2008

(mostly as a side-effect of trying to learn Mandarin—it's all over that language)

You're the second person I've heard of who has worked out a speech impediment by studying Mandarin.
posted by msittig at 8:05 AM on July 18, 2008

I have a theory about pronouncing R: if you try to change your native habit, or to re-learn how to say R, it's very hard to say a natural-sounding R. I base this solely on my observations in my home state, Rhode Island, where an R before a vowel has a little V sound mixed in -- it's vreally vremarkable.. I trained myself not to say it that way, but now my Rs sound like W to some people. I've noticed that when a lot of Rhode Islanders try to say "park the car" instead of "pock the caah," the R sounds odd.

Nobody would ever hear vred as wed. Maybe if you tried saying your Rs a different 'wrong' way, people wouldn't get distracted by them. But if it comes out sounding like "fred," you might have a new problem.
posted by wryly at 9:29 AM on July 18, 2008

So my question is - how do I/should I deal with this? This may seem a bit trivial thing to get worked up about but I have a very hard time fitting in to begin with, and my voice has always exacerbated things. That's one of the reasons I don't like talking to begin with, because I hate the sound of my voice and having people approach me about my "accent." Is there anything I can do so my voice sounds better?

A speech impediment is a bad thing to have.
An accent on the other hand is (usually) a good thing to have. With various regional exceptions, an accent is like being handsome - people often respond to you better than if you have none, for no real reason.

It seems to me that the problem is that you are self-conscious because YOU know that it's a speech impediment, but if what other people are hearing is an accent, then your feelings are misplaced insecurity. If someone asks if you're from Britain, that is great! If someone says they like your accent, that is WIN. They are commenting on an attractive quality that you have that others lack. YOU freak out because you know it's a speech impediment. Just stop doing that - it's an asset, start treating it like one.

Leave the accent alone and focus on the real problem - your perception of yourself.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:54 AM on July 18, 2008

Yeah, I tried to take on a different accent once, and it was difficult because nobody would accept it as my real accent.

I became good at manipulating accents by traveling to foreign countries and trying to pick up languages. I also searched for books that really emphasized pronunciation. For example, when I went to Japan, I had this book that really emphasized how not to sound like a foreigner.
posted by philosophistry at 2:16 AM on July 21, 2008

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