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Accent Got Ya Down?

Updated: Oct 8, 2018

As a certified Speech-Language Pathologist, one of the biggest complaints I hear while working in a medical facility is “I know my doctor knows what they’re doing, but I can’t understand a word they say!” The United States of American is a true melting pot. We’re also a land of opportunity for foreign medical students to learn and practice medicine in this country. These opportunities may present with challenges when English is your second language and your clients or patients are American-English speaking with limited exposure (aging population) to other cultures.


For example, imagine being a senior citizen who is hard of hearing and has difficulty understanding everyone speaking! Add to the mix a non-American English accent and the communication barriers explode ten-fold! As a patient, we have the responsibility to let our doctors know that we don’t understand them, as it is OUR medical care that is being affected if we don’t understand our treatment plan. But more times than not, we just nod our heads due to embarrassment or frustration and walk out with a head full of unanswered questions. As a medical professional, it is their responsibility to communicate effectively with their patients and to take further steps to make sure their patients understand. Simple steps like asking “do you understand what I’m saying?”, “can you tell me what I just instructed you to do?” Just as it’s embarrassing for the patient during communication break downs, it’s just as embarrassing for the physician. So what can be done about this?


In my professional opinion, the ultimate responsibility should lie on the medical providers shoulders. They took an oath to provide ethical medical care to save lives and help patients to manage their physical ills. If the majority of your patient population are American-English speaking (this article is referring to the USA), and American-English is YOUR second language, it would be in your best interest to be mindful of how your native-born language may be interfering with your English speaking skills. Notice I’m not referring to your English language skills. Typically, medical providers are highly skilled and efficient with English language grammar and syntax. I am referring to how their native language intonations, rate of speech and pronunciations intermix with their American-English speech productions. Herein lie the communication barriers.

The problem is obvious but what about the solution? As a patient, if you feel your quality of care is being compromised due to a communication barrier, you can always look for a new doctor, or be open and honest with your doctor about not understanding them. As a medical professional, you can continue on your current course and make no changes, you can work on being more mindful about how you may sound to your patients and clients and make a conscious effort to work on clarification strategies, or you can pursue speech coaching classes and actively work on decreasing your number of occurrences your native language interferes with your American-English production.

It is also important to realize if the problem is truly native language interference or is it American-English grammar? One must be proficient in grammar and syntax before accent modification is to be targeted and efficient. If you are unsure if your native language is interfering with your American-English speech production, ask a few co-workers you trust and who’s opinions you value. Recognize they are not being spiteful as this is not easy territory to tread. In a world of not wanting to offend anyone, many times people just let things go. But this is YOUR career. This could mean YOUR promotion. You may have graduated top in your class or be an international research superstar, but if no one can understand the knowledge your sharing, then what’s the point?


What’s your next step? If you desire to pursue professional accent reduction (not elimination) training, there are a variety of avenues to take. This type of training is NOT covered under any kind of health insurance as this is not a disorder. Typically, this type of training is provided by certified Speech-Language Pathologists, some specialized teachers or English as a Second Language Instructor. Payment and fees are negotiated between the instructor and the recipient. If you being my current reader are interested in pursuing speech coaching, you can always sign up for my speech coaching classes by clicking this link here, or go to your favorite internet search engine and type in “Accent Reduction”. Look around and see what may interest you or best meet your needs.

If you have enjoyed this topic and can relate as being on the giving OR receiving end, please come back again. This blog will most certainly morph into various topics including public speaking, communicating with confidence, when to code-switch (what is code-switching?) and other “Speechie” type topics that readers request or that I find interesting. You’ll also get to read snippets from my book “America, Cats and Guns” which is full of zany Speech-Language Pathology stories from my work travels across America.


#accentreduction #speakwithconfidence #speechmatters

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