The Importance of Accents in Communication

Think about not just what you want to say, consider also who you want to reach

  Accents add beautiful variety to our communication. Whether the accent is from another part of our own country or from somewhere on the other side of the planet.

  Accents let us identify where we are from, even if we speak the same language with one another. Accents can also carry with them a certain influence on the recipient. Both good and bad.

Accents add beautiful variety

  If you’ve never done so, try watching a movie in another language. For most American English speakers there are certain accents that seem to be frequently associated with certain characters in the movies.


  • The chef? Nearly always French
  • The scientist? German
  • The gentleman? British
  • The domestic bad guy? New York/New Jersey
  • The foreign bad guy’s accent has changed over the years, generally based on which part of the world the US is currently having stressful relations with. British, German, Russian or other vaguely eastern European, or vaguely middle eastern.

  What’s interesting is that these “standards” of accents don’t always carry over for other languages. Some for obvious reasons. Other times though it just makes more sense to change it to a different reference.

  As an example. In the English version of The Little Mermaid, the chef is French. However, if you watch the film in French, the Chef (while still singing in French of course) is Italian. Why, you ask? If everyone else is already French in the film, having a French chef doesn’t provide much change or any comedy to the delivery. Imagine if Chef Louis just sang with a regular American English accent it wouldn’t really provide much for the film.

  While accent variety can and does add flavor to creative media, this isn’t necessarily something you want in all circumstances.

It is for reasons like this that languages like Arabic, Chinese, English, and other major buisness languages have a “standard”, “common” or “simplified” version.

  More specifically, in the professional setting, choosing when to use which accent can influence the perceived professional quality of your services. A prime example is what are called Anglicisms which are English words which have been adopted into local language use rather than translated. If you happen to be able to speak both languages, in my case English and French, this can be a particularly difficult subject. If you say the English word in a French sentence, but with an English or American accent, it’s no longer an Anglicism, it is now a foreign word and may not be understood. Say the EXACT SAME WORD but with a French accent and it is now a recognized and understood word in French.

  So if you are working with a local team and conversing in a local language or everyone is using a chosen lingua franca, it can be detrimental to try to use the “root” accent of a particular word rather than the local common pronounciation, or accent.

  Conversely, if you are in international business and have recorded learning programs, phone systems, or other audiovisual presentations where the observers will come from a diverse group, it is important to choose the most neutral accent/pronounciation possible which grants you the widest possible comprehension. It is for reasons like this that languages like Arabic, Chinese, English, and other major buisness languages have a “standard”, “common” or “simplified” version.

  While I am aware of and have learned from colleagues about “standard” dialects for these and other languages, I can really only speak authoritatively on English, so that is where I will maintain focus. There are a plethora of English accents. In England alone there are more accents and dialects than I can count. Expand that to the UK and the numbers grow rapidly. Heading over the ocean to the United States and again you are met with many regional accents or dialects. In the world of public media, (reading, films and television) one accent reigns supreme. Not because of quality, or eloquence, but because of saturation. Due to the sheer quantity of media produced within very localized parts of the United States, it has resulted in what is referred to as the “General American” accent. Which is humorous because it is neither standard, nor common in the US. But when you watch an American TV program or movie, or listen to a widely distributed radio program in the US, it is the accent you “generally” hear.

  What does this mean for corporations looking to enhance their audiovisual media? If your target consumer of the media is local, then use the most widely understood local accent. If your target consumer is broader and even international in nature, find the general accent, even if it means it isn’t yours. In the case of English speaking peoples around the world, to maximize the number of people who will understand what is being said, you should aim for a “General American” accent. Even if you’re in the UK, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, or any number of other countries where English is a primary language of commerce and education.

  This isn’t because American English is better. As an American English speaker, I prefer just about any accent other than American for interpersonal conversation. However, in the professional setting, if you have a group of people from Ireland, South Africa, Australia, France, India, Nigeria, Sweden, and Scotland (yes, I’ve sat in meetings like this) you will find that the one speaking with a general American accent will be most clearly understood by the largest number of people. Again, this is just because of saturation of this accent in the media. It is the sound of English, outside their local accent, that most people in the world hear.

  The summary point of all of this is to say, just as important as matching the appropriate level of vocabulary to your intended audience, so is the accent in which the material is prepared. Think about not just what you want to say, consider also who you want to reach with your message.

-Let’s Talk


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