London, United Kingdom – Born and raised in Bulgaria, Tsetso Bikov moved to London for a job in 2016.
Having graduated from the American University in Washington, DC, he did not expect his Bulgarian American accent to become a hindrance.
“I speak English fluently and never struggled to be understood,” said the 31-year-old. “But most of the time you meet people who only want to interact with someone with a British accent.”
He wanted to create a different perception of himself other than that of a foreigner. So he hired Luke Nicholson, an accent coach based in London, who runs a business called, “Improve Your Accent”.
Nicholson, who himself has a soft southern English accent, works with non-native, fluent English speakers who want to change the way they speak.
Most of his clients feel intimidated during job interviews or are frustrated by being continuously asked, “Where are you from?”
“There’s no reason why you should sound more like a native speaker, but a lot of people want to,” said Nicholson, who has been an accent coach for more than seven years, working with students and professionals.
In recent years, Britons who want to modify their speech have also used accent coaches, presumably to avoid being discriminated against; a study last year found that “broad regional” accents could be barriers to social mobility.
But there are mental health concerns; enduring accent training could have an effect on someone’s confidence or deepen any existing identity struggles.
Shermeena Rabbi, a London-based speech therapist and founder of Unlocking Language, which provides services to help overcome anxiety, stammers and issues, said accent coaching could chip away at an individual’s personality.
“When you are yourself you are more relaxed and confident,” she said. “Imagine trying to fake an accent 24/7. It causes a lot of stress and anxiety.”
Bias in companies, conscious or unconscious, should be tackled instead, she said.
Shermeena Rabbi is a speech therapist based in London [Courtesy of Shermeena Rabbi]“It is the workforce that needs to change,” she said, as she cited the diversity of the British workforce. “When an employer decides to hire … it is their job to make sure they don’t look down upon or intimidate a candidate.”
Rabbi’s clients have physiological and behavioural conditions.
Many believe there is something wrong with their speech, from mumbling to stuttering. Some have asked her to address their accent. But she said attempting to change an accent after the adolescent years may cause anxiety, which could induce other problems such as stammering, using too many fillers such as “um, ah, like, er”, or speaking too quickly, in an incomprehensible manner.
“Once you hit your 20s, your communication is your identity,” she said. “It can be softened, but I don’t think you can eliminate it.”
In his first few weeks of accent training, Bikov felt tense.
“When I was pronouncing words in a British way, I was always thinking: ‘What would people say? He’s trying too hard to be British?’”
A one-on-one session with an accent coach costs from 70-100 pounds an hour ($90 – $130). Nicholson’s sessions start at 79 pounds an hour. Bikov has spent 2,000 pounds on the classes.
“If you are a junior person with a foreign accent, it would be a real problem for you when starting out,” said Bikov.
He has a senior position in his sales job, and often performs better than many of his British colleagues – something they poke fun at.
“Even a person with an accent can make this many sales,” they said.
But he emphasised the need for these classes in order to fit in with the society,
“When you sound British, you come across as more literate, more knowledgeable. Even though I know these are stereotypes, people still think you are stupid if you have a different accent,” he said.
“You always come across people who have this racist element, even if they don’t want to.”
Bikov’s international friends have not tried an accent coach, but have watched videos posted online or listened to podcasts to try and perfect a British accent.
“My friends have had difficult interviews because people make faces or ask them to repeat their answers multiple times.”
In England, as in much of the rest of the world, how you speak can influence what people assume about your social background or education.
Nicholson said acquiring a British accent should never be the aim.
He teaches new sounds to incorporate into speech until they are used unconsciously and become natural.
“It’s not about sounding a hundred-percent British,” he said, “it’s just about moving towards English sounds that people can relate with more easily.”
But amid Brexit, a political event which has spurred xenophobia, there are fears such dedication to assimilate could result in a loss of self-esteem.
“There are many reasons why people feel unconfident or unhappy in their voice and speech, and sometimes they may blame their accent, but discover through sessions that this was not the issue at all,” said Rabbi.
“I have heard and read of encounters where people are experiencing racism based on their accents and this seems to be linked with Brexit, she said. “People have had negative experiences in relation to their foreign accent and with Brexit this has only increased.”