Suffering through Syllables: Tips from an Accent Modification Expert

Oh_My_English_logoEveryone learning something new wonders, deep down, “What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I GET this?” One of the most important aspects of teaching accent modification is helping every student understand that whatever they have not been “getting” – whether for months, years, or decades – is always something tricky about English pronunciation. Something subtle that they just need explained to them in detail. With that explanation, the “Ah hah!” arises, and they move forward.

One common example of the many pronunciation subtleties that snag non-native English speakers is any word shown in the dictionary as having one syllable, but, functionally, has two syllables. And, if the student has been trying FOR YEARS to pronounce that word as one syllable, they are trying the impossible. Honestly. An example? “World.” A simple, commonly used word, the bane of many non-native English speakers,  needs to be pronounced as two syllables: As in “were-[schwa] ld.” When I teach this word, I delve into why “world,” and so many other words, functions as two syllables. The parsing out of the reason for the challenge helps students through the struggle. To the other side of the “world,” so to speak.

You can assume that any word with “l” in it beyond the first letter or consonant blend will need to spread out into at least two syllables, functionally. For a word like “railing,” go for three syllables, because the “ai” is a diphthong that contains a “y” sound in there, so you need time to push through all of it. Go for this: “ray-[schwa]-ling.” Same thing goes for words with “r” beyond the first letter (or consonant blend),  like “hear.” Seems like it should be wee, short, quick, but pull it into two syllables to allow for the transition into the “r.” Go for this: “hee-yer.” I promise it will be easier and make lots of sense as you apply this idea.

Be mindful, though, that sometimes when students think a word needs extra space for an “r” or “l” transition in a consonant blend, it’s really just that the blending of the sounds needs more work – like, for example, in words like “apply” or “accrue.” So take care not to extend all words into an additional syllable if there’s an “l” or an “r.” We just need to attend to each context differently.

So here’s what I want every student to know: When you’re struggling with a word, when you’re avoiding using it, we just need to parse it out. Then it will be yours to use easily, comfortably, freely. It’s not you! It’s the language!

I look forward to helping you be understood…..ALL THE TIME!

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