The Difference between Accent and Pronunciation

Accent and pronunciation are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. So what’s the actual difference?

Let’s start with some (Oxford) dictionary definitions:

pronunciation: the way in which a word is pronounced 

accent: the way words are pronounced, associated with a particular country, area or social class

Okay. The two terms overlap but are not synonymous. Both mention ‘how words are pronounced’, but ‘accent’ associates the way of pronouncing with a particular region or group of people.

As an English pronunciation coach, I define an accent as a collection of pronunciation habits that carries some kind of regional or social association. 

I consider pronunciation to be much more about clarity and intelligibility. 

This seems to line up pretty well with what the dictionary says. 

So far, so good.

Dictionary entry of the word ACCENT
Image: Shutterstock

Pronunciation vs ‘accent reduction’

This is where it gets complicated. Do I teach pronunciation or accent?

Well…both, depending on my client and their individual goals.

If someone wants to improve the clarity of their speech, it’s safe to say we’re working on pronunciation, no matter what their first language or accent is.

If someone wants to speak in a specific accent – perhaps because they are an actor or because they have a personal objective to explore a new accent – then of course, we’re working on accent.

When someone’s first language isn’t English, and they are working on English pronunciation, this is often referred to accent reduction, a term I avoid because this process is not about reducing anything! 

The inevitability of accent

Having said all this, pronunciation training always exists in context.

There is inevitable accent influence, because pronunciation training exists in a particular location and the teacher has an accent. Everyone who speaks does.

In the UK, we often teach a specific set of British sounds, because a target pronunciation model is a practical necessity and there is no such thing as an objectively neutral accent.

Most often, I teach within the parameters of a ‘Southern British Standard English’ accent, unless agreed otherwise with my client at the beginning of our programme.

Perhaps course marketing is a lot to blame for the ‘pronunciation vs accent’ issue.

It’s easy to use terms like ‘improve your accent’ or ‘reduce your accent’, when what we mean is we mean ‘get clearer speech’.

The issue is the erroneous implication that some accents are not acceptable and in need of improvement.

We can be clear in any accent, but it is important to be clear.

Certain accent features or sound substitutions may stand in the way of clarity. We approach this on a case-by-case basis, which is the beauty of one-to-one training.

Pronunciation choices…

Working on pronunciation might once have automatically meant overhauling one’s accent.

Today, I believe that it’s more about exploring new CHOICES that suit my client’s individual goals and circumstances.

That’s why I’ve called myself Vocal Choice 😊

To find out how I can help you expand your pronunciation choices, schedule your free, 20-minute Clarity Call for a mini road-map of clear next steps.

While you’re here, why not check out my free video series Ten Tips for Super-Clear English Pronunciation.


Sonya Ross

I'm a voice, speech and English pronunciation coach based between London and Hastings, UK, and worldwide online. I help busy international professionals speak clearly, confidently and with impact so that they get their valuable ideas across in the way they intended at work and in life.