English Pronunciation: Sometimes it Gets Harder Before it Gets Better. What?!

Male tutroing female Acent Mdificaiton - len KobekAlmost always, within a couple of months of starting accent modification lessons, students notice a bump up in others’ understanding of them. Life gets easier, less strenuous in conversations, at work, among friends. It gets better. But sometimes, just sometimes, communication with others gets a little harder before it gets better. There’s an alarming bump DOWN. And this can cause a panic in accent modification students, quite understandably. The most important thing for students to know that what’s happening is this: YOU’RE ACTUALLY IMPROVING!

Why does this bump down sometimes happen? It’s really not about YOU, the speaker. It has to do with the listener – the people you are talking with.  People who talk with (listen to) non-native speakers of English listen to those folks using a sort of template of comprehension. They hear the non-native speaker through a filter of categorization of the speaker’s accent, and match it to a quickly retrieved, so-to-speak, accent template in their  minds. This happens for the listener VERY QUICKLY, and continues to happen throughout any given conversation: matching, comparing, confused about the mismatch. SO…when a non-native speaker’s accent is dropping away (i.e., when the accent modification student is  making progress), the speaker is SOMETIMES consistent with what the listener’s brain is expecting, but NOT ALWAYS. So the listener gets confused. (Their brain is thinking, “Oh, sometimes I hear and “r” and sometimes I hear “t”…sooooo… what am I hearing? I’m not sure!”)

Some listeners have an abundance of patience when talking with a non-native speaker of English. They will hang in there, keep trying to sort it out, either because they need to (maybe they are a colleague or supervisor) or because they care about you (a new friend). Treasure those people and encourage their engagement. But sometimes, listeners do not have that patience, that stick-to-it-iveness. They smile, nod, move away, make excuses to disengage.

This is very frustrating, to say the least, for students who are sincerely studying and practicing.

But have hope! The more the accent shifts to more consistency, the less confusing it will be to the listener, and the more fluid will be your conversations.  The more the non-native speaker can put the listener at ease (that dissonance of hearing/matching is amplified when it’s a stressful conversation), the less it will happen. Use humor. Acknowledge the awkwardness, if you can.

And remember…if this happens, it’s temporary, and it means things are improving! You’ll get to the other side of this awkward –  rather unfair – stage. Rest easy, and keep practicing! You’re moving in the right direction, as evidenced – ironically – by the fact that people are having trouble with your changes!! Hang in there!

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