The Difference between Accent and Pronunciation

Don’t confuse accent with pronunciation! Learn the difference!’

I see comments like the above A LOT, and I understand why. ‘Accent’ and ‘pronunciation’ are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Let’s dig a little more deeply with some (Oxford) dictionary definitions:

pronunciation – the way in which a word is pronounced.’ (I would add: to make it easily understood by a general audience)

accent – the way words are pronounced (so far, so similar), associated with a particular country, area or social class.

Okay. The two terms overlap but are not synonymous. Both deal with ‘how words are pronounced’, but ‘accent’ has the additional association with a particular region or group of people.

After years of thinking and teaching, I define an accent as a collection of pronunciation habits that carries some kind of regional or social association. This seems to line up pretty well with the dictionary definitions.

Dictionary entry of the word ACCENT
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Pronunciation vs accent ‘reduction’

Now we’ve got the difference, which one do I teach?

Well…both, of course. Training might lean towards one or the other, depending on my client and their individual aims.

If someone wants help to improve the clarity of their speech, it’s safe to say we’re working on pronunciation.

It someone’s aim is to reproduce a specific accent, perhaps because they are an actor or because they have a personal objective to explore a new accent, then we’re working on accent.

I don’t love the term accent reduction, because the process doesn’t reduce anything. On the contrary, we gain something. It also implies that the original accent should be minimised, which I disagree with, because we can be clear in any accent. 

The inevitability of accent

Pronunciation training does not exist in a vacuum; there is inevitable accent influence. In the UK, we teach British sounds, because a target pronunciation model is a practical necessity and there is no such thing as a definable, globally neutral accent. Most often, I teach within the parameters of a British accent, unless agreed otherwise with my client at the start of the training!

I think the pronunciation vs accent sticking point comes in the training description. It’s easy to use terms like ‘improve your accent’ or ‘reduce your accent’, when we mean ‘get clearer speech’. The issue is the implication that some accents are not acceptable and in need of improvement. This. Is. Definitely. Not. The. Case! We can be clear in any accent, but it is important to be clear. Certain stronger accent features may stand in the way of clarity, depending on the audience, and 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 meant acquiring a new accent, and maybe still means that for some. Today, I believe that it’s more about exploring new choices that suit my client’s individual goals and circumstances. That’s why I called myself Vocal Choice 😊

To find out how I can help you expand your vocal choices, get in touch.

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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.