Do You Speak with an Accent? … You Can Still Be an Outstanding SLP

The American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA) provides the following definitions for the terms accent and dialect:

  • Accent: A phonetic trait from a person’s original language that is carried over to a second language.
  • Dialect: Sets of differences, wherever they may occur, that make one English speaker’s speech different from one another’s.

In the multicultural society we enjoy here in the U.S., we interact with people who talk differently from us everyday, whether they’re from other parts of the world or just from another part of the country. And you can be sure that as normal as you might think you sound, you don’t need to travel far before you find yourself somewhere where you’re quickly identified as being from somewhere else just by virtue of the way you speak. Anybody who has ever taken a road trip from New England to New Jersey knows that.

Maybe English is not your native language and you speak with an accent… Or maybe you’re a native English speaker, but you happen to be from a place like Dixie, Minnesota, Louisiana, Massachusetts, or even Australia, but plan to practice somewhere where your dialect would stick out like a sore thumb. Can you still be effective in your role as a speech language pathologist?

We sat down with professor emeritus and veteran speech language pathologist Dr. Paul Fogle, PhD, for an answer. As an author of several textbooks on the subject and having spent decades as an SLP, Dr. Fogle’s answer should come as a relief to anybody considering entering the field who has ever considered that question. According to Fogle, if you’re a student of communication sciences and disorders who happens to have a dialect or accent, you can still be outstanding in your role as an SLP. And as long as you’re able to form the same sounds in the dialect of English native to your patient, it’s possible that having an accent or dialect could make you even better at your job.

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What Does ASHA Have to Say on the Subject of Accents and Dialects?

In our interview with Dr. Fogle he had this to say:

“An accent or dialect should not interfere as long as a student can learn the information and communicate that to clients, patients, and family members. When working with a child or adult who has some articulation problems, the accent or dialect must not interfere in producing the correct sound for the language that is being used or the language structure.”

Dr. Fogle’s statement is backed up by ASHA’s position statement regarding students and professionals who speak English with accents and non-standard dialects. ASHA’s position statement offers a refreshing perspective on the topic…

  • Everyone has an accent or dialect; to not accept students or professionals into the SLP field because of their accent or dialect would be discriminatory
  • Members of ASHA cannot discriminate against those who speak with an accent or dialect in educational programs, employment, or service delivery.
  • Students and professionals in the SLP field who speak with accents or dialects can provide SLP services as long as they have the requisite level of knowledge, the expected level of diagnostic and clinical case management skills, and are able to properly model the SLP aspect if modeling is necessary.

Addressing the specific issue of dialects within the English language, ASHA released a separate position statement, with the following conclusions…

  • The English language has many linguistic varieties, such as Black English, standard English, Appalachian English, southern English, New York dialect, and Spanish influenced English.
  • No dialectal variety of English is a disorder or a pathological form of speech or language. Each social dialect is adequate as a functional and effective variety of English.

So for example, say that you’re a speech language pathologist and your first language was Japanese. You have an accent that prevents you from saying the English “R” sound.

That won’t exclude you from this profession; in the worst case it will simply mean that you shouldn’t work with clients who have a problem with de-rhotacization. More likely, you’ll even be able to work with all clients as long as you can model and teach something like proper rhotacization accurately.

SLPs work with clients who have a wide range of issues, so not being able to work with a few for something like de-rhotacization issues shouldn’t have a significant impact on your career. In fact, if you are bilingual that is a huge plus and it will open the door to many additional career opportunities.

In December of 2017 the career website LinkedIn reported nearly 20,000 job openings throughout the United States for bilingual speech language pathologists.

How Does Official Policy Translate to Reality?

Despite ASHA’s policy statements, some SLPs with accents and dialects do encounter some challenges early on, but don’t let that discourage you. Here we offer a more nuanced take on issues you could encounter based on the experiences of two SLPs, one a non-native English speaker with an accent, the other with a southern dialect studying in New England …

Barbara Fernandes is a tri-lingual speech language pathologist based out of the Dallas-Fort Worth area who has her own blog and also writes for ASHA’s blog. Her real-life experiences don’t align exactly with ASHA’s official positions on accents and dialects.

In one of her blog posts, Fernandes gives several personal examples of how she as a non-native English speaker faced statements from her professors and clinical supervisors that ran counter to ASHA’s official policy. In one instance she had someone ask her, “How can you become an SLP with such an accent?” In another example, a professor told her she had a speech disorder in front of her classmates. In a third instance she was even discouraged from going into the speech language pathology field.

Unfortunately not everyone is as educated, experienced, and professional as people like Dr. Fogle. Despite official ASHA positions, those with accents and dialects can realistically expect to run into questions that their standard-American-English colleagues won’t have to face.

For Fernandes, even though she faced discouragement because of her accent, she also recounts how she had the support of other professors who encouraged her to stick with her graduate studies and to not take the criticism personally.

Another example Fernandes gives is of a bright woman from small-town Texas who was at the top of her class. Even as a native English speaker, she still had a pronounced southern dialect when she spoke.

One of her professors from the Northeastern U.S. mentioned that her dialect would significantly prevent her from getting a job once she graduated. Luckily another professor overheard the comment, and correctly reassured her that her dialect could also actually work to her advantage if she planned to work in the local area.

Fernandes says that because SLPs are among the only people who have actually studied and understand the biological origins of accents and dialects, it is their duty to treat their colleagues and other professionals in a way that respects linguistic diversity. As Fernandes puts it, “A dialect is more than just a form of English, it is part of who we are as cultural individuals and part of our identity.”

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