Helping break down barriers

New Accent Modification Clinic launches

- November 22, 2013

Speech Language Pathologist Cindy Dobbelsteyn (left) with Dal student Xuesong Xie. (Danny Abriel photo)
Speech Language Pathologist Cindy Dobbelsteyn (left) with Dal student Xuesong Xie. (Danny Abriel photo)

Accents are relative: we all have one when we talk, but the farther we get from home the more exotic it can sound to others. Accents can be a proud cultural identifier, but in some cases they can end up being a barrier to communication, resulting in difficult conversations and lost understanding.

To help individuals work through these barriers, the Dalhousie School of Human Communication Disorders (SHCD) has launched an Accent Modification Clinic in Halifax.
Though this sort of service has become popular in other major centres, the Dal clinic is the first of its kind in the Maritimes.

Through personalized programming, the fee-for-service clinic provides instruction on speech rhythm and pronunciation specific to the individual’s needs, goals and concerns. These can range from asking for a morning coffee order to industry-specific vocabulary for job interviews and business meetings.

“In the university context, students who have English as a second language often find they are understood,” explains Dr. Michael Kiefte, the clinic’s director. “However, in an off-campus setting, where listeners may not be as accustomed to hearing accents, these students often come up against additional barriers. It can be extremely frustrating and can create difficulties in social and employment situations.”

Working through sounds

The key word in the clinic’s title is “modification”: the goal isn’t to eliminate accents (since, of course, everyone has one) but instead to provide individuals with pronunciation techniques to better communicate with native English speakers.

The speech system has a sort of muscle memory: it’s trained to make sounds that we use most often. But different languages use different sounds, and speakers who learn a new language as adults may substitute sounds from their native tongue to make similar, but not identical, sounds in a new language.

That’s not a problem in and of itself, but non-native English speakers can easily find themselves in circumstances where their speech isn’t easily understood.

“Some listeners may focus on the accent, and not the words,” says Cindy Dobbelsteyn, a speech language pathologist with the clinic. “We had one student who never felt as if she was being heard because every time she started to speak, someone would ask where she was from instead of responding to what she had said.”

Xuesong Xie is one such student. A student in the Master of Environmental Engineering program at Dal, she came to the clinic because she felt her accent was detracting from communication.

“When you are not speaking the way someone who speaks English as their first language does, it seems to take a lot of extra energy for the person who is listening to understand,” she explains. 

A personalized approach

Accents are incredibly personal, and the clinic’s programming is equally personalized. It’s based on an initial consultation and modified as the individual progresses.

“Because each language is different, and sometimes students have picked up incorrect habits [when learning English], we need to assess the source of communication difficulties, keeping the student’s specific goals in mind,” says Dobbelsteyn.

The individual is then given exercises to work on the speech problems identified. Typically, results are evident in 10 to 12 weeks.  

Xie says that success in the program is much like learning a musical instrument: “You have to practice every day – at least half an hour. Eventually, the sounds become a natural part of your conversations.”

The benefits of the program can be exponential, as not only do students increase the clarity of their speech but their confidence grows as well. “Last week, after a presentation for a class, my professors commented that my speech was clearer than earlier presentations. I was much more confident and comfortable with speaking,” Xie says with a smile.

Making things clear

Both Xie and Dobbelsteyn reinforce that the clinic is about accent modification, not elimination. “From a practical perspective, it is impossible to eliminate an accent,” Dobbelsteyn notes. “Everybody has one”.

Xie offers a relatable pop-culture example from popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory, reinforcing the clinic’s goal of improving communication, not changing cultural identity. “Rajesh Koothrappali has an accent, but his English is clear. Everyone can understand him without putting extra work into it, and that’s what is important.”  

As there are now more than 2,000 international students at Dal, many of the individuals the clinic helps are students, but the service is available to anyone who may be interested. While the clinic does charge for its services, many health-care plans such as Medavie Blue Cross and those provided by the Dalhousie Student Union will provide a limited amount of coverage for speech therapy services. (Details can be provided by your health-care service provider.) In addition to individual sessions, group sessions are also available with a lower fee.

For more information or to contact the clinic, visit its website or email


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