English Pronunciation Training: To Record or Not to Record?

SONY DSC“Should I record myself practicing accent modification?” I’m often asked by students. My response: “Yes, but rarely!”

Here’s when and why you might want to record yourself:

It can be helpful to record yourself reading a familiar paragraph when you are starting accent modification instruction. It gives you a good baseline of where you started in your pronunciation. Then go ahead and record yourself reading the same paragraph about two months after starting training, and then again another two months later, and so forth. You’ll hear a substantial difference from where you started! And it will tell you that change is possible and is happening. Hearing that change will encourage you in moments of doubt…”Have I really made that much progress?” That doubt is understandable and common, even when you are hearing from friends and co-workers that you’re making progress. It’s always helpful to hear it for yourself. You can trust it more.

But I always discourage students from recording themselves (both during lessons and outside of lessons) in order to catch their pronunciation mistakes. Why? Because your primary job, as an accent modification student, is to learn to listen to yourself – really hear yourself – while you are speaking. And if you become accustomed to relying on recording, that very important, key feedback loop is compromised – never developed, or developed inaccurately.

Here is some help towards catching your speech without using a recorder:

  • Practice listening to yourself while speaking. If you’re home alone and talking aloud, close your eyes sometimes to help tune yourself in more to your own speech.
  • Also try cupping your hands around your ears on both sides to amplify your speech by throwing it forward. You will hear how your voice tone is, in reality, so don’t be surprised if you are surprised by your own voice at first!
  • When you’re talking, you might occasionally pause and ask yourself, “How did that come out?”

When you do record yourself for that monitoring and celebratory process, keep the recording short (just a couple of paragraphs) so you don’t fatigue and lose your rhythm. And choose fairly simple, but interesting topics, something you’re familiar with, too. Like something from work, or a story you enjoy. Practice reading it a couple of times before you turn on the recorder so you hear yourself at your best. Remember to say the date at the start of your recording., so you can easily compare!

So pick up the recording device only rarely, to admire your changes and advancements. And TRUST that you can listen to yourself and catch what you need to catch. I’ll help you, through a variety of techniques, to develop that listening and catching ability. That’s a major part of my job with you. It will help you get where you want to go much faster.

© 2015-2020 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

 

English Pronunciation Assessment: How it Works

tutor-606091_960_720So here we are, sitting together for our first accent modification lesson. Yes, we’ve talked over the phone, but now we’re sitting together, pens in hand, paper in front of us. Now what?

We’ll be talking, and I’ll be listening very closely, taking lots of notes, which you’ll be welcome to see either while I’m writing or after, but I’ll be explaining everything once the assessment is done. The questions I ask will be open-ended to encourage you to talk! I’ll be asking you to repeat things you’ve said so I can fully “get” what you’re saying and, more importantly, how you’re saying it: What is your tongue doing? How much voice are you adding? I’ll be asking questions that will elicit a broad variety of speech sounds so I can get a comprehensive idea of where you are now and where we need to go with lessons. I will likely ask you the same questions repeatedly, if I’m trying to be sure I hear how you’re saying something. I’m not listening to the content of what you are saying, so please not to take offense if I later do not remember something important you shared with me! It’s nothing personal! I’m just in “assessment/hearing” mode.

One thing I’ll be doing while we’re talking is preparing a set of priority phonemes (speech sounds that can change the meaning of a word) for you to modify. This list will likely be a mix of consonants and vowels (including diphthongs), and will be personalized to your speech patterns – not just based on what your native language is. The length of that priority set will depend on how much change you wish to make: Do you want to be understood all the time? Or are you planning to eliminate your “foreign”  accent entirely? It’s a good idea for you to consider this matter before our first meeting, but, of course, you can change your mind at any point along the way after we start lessons. In fact, students fairly frequently do come into training thinking they want to eliminate their accents, and then decide to work towards being understood all the time, and vise versa.

And that’s how it works! A comprehensive conversation, lots of questions and repetition. And then the first, model lesson, right after the assessment, during our first meeting. So you can get a sense of how I teach, I can get a sense of how you learn, and then we see where we go from there. I look forward to meeting with you!

© 2015-2020  Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

 

 

Don’t Fear the American “R”: Options from Your Accent Modification Tutor

It's your choice!When students start accent modification with a native language that does not have an “R” that fits with the standard American English  “R,” I set about helping the student explore their options. The standard American English “R” is  difficult to nail down for many people: The tongue is ambiguously placed, and requires the right amount of tension, the right length, with the right amount of lip rounding. Absent any of these (and other) elements, the sound that beckons forth is interesting, but not quite an “R” sound. It is a sincere challenge for many non-native English speakers to acquire a Standard American “R,” but it can certainly be done. I’ve taught some students who have nailed it within five minutes; others, it’s taken a few months, with repeated reinforcement not to revert to their native curl, or throaty fricative. It is always incredibly gratifying to help a student in the “R.” And some students need to explore their options.

So there’s a choice we explore together. whether or not the standard American “R” is do-able, easy, difficult, worth it, too hard, not worth it at all. And, if it’s pretty doable, we proceed with that training. But if the student or I have a true sense, after many tries, that it’s just too hard, I support them to produce a substitute “R” in the form of a curled “R” –  easy to teach, easy to pick up. Some students think the curled “R” is a speech impediment in English, but it’s really not – it’s used plenty by many perfectly articulate Americans whose native language is English. The curled “R” is easily understood as an “R,” as compared to the vague, loosely articulated attempted standard American “R.”

We do “recheck” from time to time: Is the standard American “R” accessible now, after some other training has happened? Is it absolutely necessary for professional or personal reasons to support the student to adopt a standard American “R”?  If so, for either of these situations, we proceed, sometimes haltingly, with getting the standard American “R.”

Sometimes students who want accent modification lessons hesitate before that first call to me, having gotten the impression that the standard American “R” is too hard and hands-down necessary. So I encourage people to explore it as an option, but not to feel defeated if it’s just not happening or going to happen. There are always other aspects of students’ speech we can modify that ensure they will be understood all the time. There “R” options, so let’s not let that “R” get in the way.

© 2015-2020 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

Rolling with Your “R”s: For the Trill of It in Accent Modification!

pexels-photo-91227Most of the accent modification teaching I do is with students whose first language is not English. But from time to time, a native English speaker asks me about how to acquire and consistently produce a solid trill.  They understand that, in order to sound authentic in any language that uses the trill phonemically, they need to have it down. The trill is the rolling “rrrrr” commonly found in Spanish, and it can be very hard to pick up. I’ve had people say they’ve been trying for decades, and had given up. I’ve even had people tell me that they have been told to give up – that they  are genetically unable to produce a trill. I don’t know if there is a genetic inability among some people to produce a trill, but I know I’ve never taught someone who had that. Or, if they had it, they were – by some miracle – able to change their genetics!! Amazing! <smile>

Everyone I have taught whose goal is the trill has been able to pick it up within one or two hours. Yes, it is effortful. Yes, it requires concentration. Yes, there is some sloppy spitting  at first! (No worries!)  Yes, it sometimes requires seven or eight different, creative approaches to grasp it, but those approaches all happen, in sequence, within a couple of hours. Seriously, there has always been a way, using the right approach. And, of course, the key is approaching it with humor and a depth of patience on both sides. And, at the moment of getting it – often surprised – the student produces a trill…”Is that it?!” Yes, that’s it! Celebration, disbelief..it’s a wonderful moment. “Let’s do it again!” we both say. They’ve got it and go off sounding authentic and accomplished. Because, after all, they – and their newly nimble tongue – made it happen, with some guidance. (Side note: the human tongue can seem like an entity within the mouth that can’t be tamed, that only does certain things and not others. The tongue has eight muscles, and all can be trained to do what is needed by the speaker!)

The keys to successful trilling are: the right amount of tongue tension, the correct tongue angle, the correct position of the tongue, and the best use of the air flowing out of the mouth at just the right time, and the adding of voicing to the process when those other elements are solidly in place. If you are practicing this yourself, pay additional attention to engaging your diaphragm, as this will help modulate/control the air that your tongue is going to catch. Yes, lots of loving parts, but very exciting once it’s been mastered!

So it’s rrrreally do-able! And it’s trrrruly trilling when it happens!

© 2015-2020 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

 

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA): Why We Use IPA Charts during Accent Modification Training

Image of IPA vowel chart - accent instructionWhen an accent modification student first sees the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) charts on the table in front of us, their eyes somewhat glaze over..they do  have a pretty sterile, oddball look to them, I acknowledge that. Hmmm…are they really necessary for the learning process? I suggest, yes, they are really necessary. I refer to these charts constantly during lessons. I roll them out, place them on the table half-way through the very first lesson, after the assessment. I lay them out at the start of every following lesson. And they are the last things I put away at the end of a lesson. I teach the students the lay of the land of those charts – both vowel and consonant charts –  and students relate to them, with increasing curiosity and ownership of their learning. It really does help.

The symbols are the merest bit unusual, but it always heartens me when a student starts warming up to the process, and voluntarily learns the symbols that are key to their individual accent modification. In studying together, the charts become a focal point for movement between and among sounds. A goal, an adventure, an effort supported by the documented reality called “pronunciation.” It seems to offer students the support of knowing they are not alone in this learning process, this strenuous effort for change. Frequently, after some familiarity with the IPA, a student asks about the origins of the IPA…”Who came up with this?” they ask with amusement and delight. (The answer: Alexander Ellis, Henry Sweet, Daniel Jones, and Paul Passy, in the late 19th century.)

My IPA charts are fully visible, encased in plastic, and are also old, a bit crumpled, and I leave them that way, so students know – really know – that others have come before them and struggled, studied, and made progress using these charts. Okay, yes, I do replace them after a while, but the ones I’m using right now are ten years old. That’s ten years of shared curiosity and amusement, countless students who have handled these particular charts, pointed to the karat symbol, asking, “Is that what I’m going for?” I nod. “Oh!” they say. “I get it!” That karat’s presence helps them nail that phoneme. Very exciting.

So I look forward to sitting with you, the student, or with your family member, friend, neighbor, or colleague, who is making the effort to modify their accent. Peering together at this system, these charts, these worn tools of reference and learning. “Oh, I get it!” And you will get it. You will.

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© 2015-2020 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

 

“Why is ‘of’ Pronounced ‘uhv’? WHY?!”: Perspectives from Your Accent Modification Tutor

face_expression_surprise-1090238Ah, yes, the really sensible “why” questions about all the things in English that defy rules, guidelines, intuition, and frustrate accent modification students to no end. Often, when I start teaching accent modification to a new student, and I witness their frustration at the lack of reasoned guidelines, I have an urge to apologize for the strain of it all. I really do understand it, being a secondary speaker of print-to-speech logical languages like Spanish and French. And sometimes I do apologize, wincing, “Yes, I’m so sorry. It makes no sense.” And I nod into the student’s shock and dismay at what they’ve been saying “wrong” for twenty-five years, as if I’ve just told them that there are no rules anywhere about anything that matters.

And we know this “unruliness” of English is everywhere the student is or wants to be: in verbs, in nouns, in adjectives, at work, in friendships, on the phone, in person, in job interviews, in hopes, plans, and in the future. The unruliness is in casual or relaxed speech, and in formal talk. It’s everywhere, indeed.

Here is an interesting thing to consider, though, around the illogic of English pronunciation: Although it produces plentiful “uh-ohs,” embarrassed look-backs, and a sense of trickiness, it also pushes all students’ minds to stay wide open in listening and gathering information. It keeps the mind and the ears yawning wide. And, if there is a curiosity about it, which we encourage, the unruliness can be met with great expectation and humor. In real fact, some of the great enemies of learning anything are lock-down, predictability, dread, and caution, while some of the greatest friends of learning anything are openness, curiosity, a touch of whimsy, surprise, and enjoyment.

So I encourage Accent Modification learners this way: Try not to take these revelations like a sucker punch, but like a kooky kind of gift. A gift that you have opened up, and exclaimed, “Wow! That’s wonderful! Thank you! I’ve always wanted one of these! How great! What is it?!”

Indeed, that gift is the numerous ways of pronouncing “oo,” and “ea,” and “ough.” It’s “good” and “food.” It’s “bead” and “head.”  It’s “tough,” and it’s “cough,” and “through.”  And, yes, it’s “what!?” pronounced as “wuht!?” And these gifts, these challenges, keep the student the merest bit off-center, the merest bit off-balance, which requires the student to pay close attention or risk toppling. If the student pays close attention, they will sip up all sorts of unruly examples in an ordinary day.

Sure! Here’s what it is: It’s “of,” “bargain,” “create,” and “know” (versus “now”) among piles of other gifts. Open them and…..enjoy!

© 2015-2020 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

 

Accent Modification: Your Brain Takes Up the Cause for You!

brain-5It happens with movie stars’ names, and it happens with the accent modification process. Okay, let’s start with the movie star: You’re trying to think of the name of a famous actress in a movie you just saw. You’re thinking, “She played the main character, she’s famous, in lots of movies, big smile…good grief… I can’t believe I can’t remember her name…” You think about it actively for about ten minutes, and then, frustrated, you give up, thinking, “Oh, well. It’ll come to me.” AND YOU’RE RIGHT! It WILL come to you! YOUR BRAIN DOESN’T GIVE UP!!! Your brain, frankly, doesn’t like ambiguity one bit.

At an odd time, OUT OF THE BLUE, like at 2 o’clock in the morning, or the next day while you’re having a lively conversation with someone about, say, the best fertilizer. And you shout, “JULIA ROBERTS! IT’S JULIA ROBERTS! Oh yay!” And you know, quite profoundly, that YOUR BRAIN NEVER GAVE UP ON THE PROCESS OF FIGURING IT OUT FOR YOU. Sure, the person you’re talking with about fertilizer won’t have a clue what Julia Roberts has to do with fertilizer, but, once you explain what just came to you, they’ll recognize the phenomenon. We all recognize the phenomenon: The brain takes up the cause.

That’s how accent modification works. The brain KEEPS working at the issue even when you’re not doing it actively. Once the brain knows what it needs to work on, it does it. It works between lessons. It works nights and weekends. It works while you are thinking about other things. The brain likes to makes things clear, so when you have decided to work on your accent, and we assess and go towards new sounds, the brain TAKES UP THE CAUSE.

Sometimes we will be working on a specific speech context (say, “r” in a consonant blend) and I notice something else that we needn’t focus on, but is important for you to get to work on. I’ll commonly say, “I’d like us to give this to your brain to work on. Don’t worry about.” And I explain what I think the brain would do well to take up the cause on, and your brain goes off and does it. It’s kind of like multi-tasking, but more truly brilliant. And next lesson, the student comes in, having made progress on that matter, without consciously working on it!

It’s a wonderful thing, really. And it’s based on real neurobiology, and on good, ongoing, repeated assessing of your speech, along with focused, clear, creative teaching, and an interactive learning process. Working together, all three of us: You, me, and your magnificent, active, lively brain.

I look forward to helping your brain take up your cause: being understood all the time!

© 2015-2020 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.